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PM Abe aspires to bolster economy ahead of constitutional revision

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe raises a toast at a gathering of his local support group, in Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture, on Jan. 8, 2018. At right is Abe's wife Akie. (Mainichi)

After spending his year-end and New Year holidays at a hotel in Tokyo's upscale Roppongi district, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe returned to his home in Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture, for a three-day stay from Jan. 6. Abe was apparently in high spirits, after leading his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to a resounding victory in the October 2017 House of Representatives election and raising the prospects of extending his time at the helm of the government until 2021.

"I still have work to get done -- that is, bailing the country out of deflation, a human resources development revolution, a productivity revolution, and constitutional amendment," he said, as he addressed his supporters at New Year parties in his local area on Jan. 7 and 8. The order of the policy agendas he listed up apparently reflects his priorities.

"First and foremost, it is necessary to bail the nation out of deflation. To achieve that, pay raises must be carried out." Abe has advocated such a policy since after his triumph in the lower house general election. While Abe has long prioritized his goal of breaking away from deflation since he returned to power in 2012, he has yet to achieve the objective even after five years of his flagship "Abenomics" economic policy mix. The recent trend of the government demanding pay raises to the business community at this time of the year has almost taken root as a seasonal event.

At a New Year party organized jointly by Japan's three major business groups at a hotel in Tokyo on Jan. 5, Abe remarked in his speech, "I would like you to achieve a 3 percent pay hike this year in order to put the economy into a positive growth cycle."

Abe already eyes the steering of his administration after his possible election to his third term as LDP president in the party leadership election scheduled for this coming September. "If the consumption tax is raised (from the current 8 percent to 10 percent) in October 2019 (as scheduled), the expiration of my party presidential term would coincide with a downturn in consumption," Abe complained during a dinner meeting with Special Adviser to the Cabinet Satoshi Fujii and House of Councillors member Shoji Nishida at the prime minister's official residence on the evening of Dec. 12 last year.

His next three-year term as LDP president -- if he manages to clinch victory in the party leadership race -- would expire in September 2021, the year after the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics possibly boost the country's economy and when a backlash from the sales tax hike may become evident.

His term as a lower house member is also set to expire in October 2021. After the October 2017 general election, Abe ruled out the possibility of calling any more Diet elections. His remarks suggest that he would no longer consider dissolving the lower house for a snap general election until autumn 2021 and hand over the baton to his successor after serving out his term. Until then, Abe aspires to strengthen the foundations of the Japanese economy by pulling the nation out of the prolonged deflation and achieving both a human resources development revolution and a productivity revolution.

Since he made a comeback to the party presidency in September 2012, Abe has scored landslide victories in three lower house elections and two upper chamber polls. However, he suffered a bitter "defeat" that he wants to revenge in the first round of voting in the 2012 party presidential election. In that race, LDP bigwig Shigeru Ishiba beat Abe by a wide margin in the first round of voting as Ishiba garnered far more local votes from rank-and-file party members and local assembly members belonging to the LDP. In the end, Abe managed to conquer the race by gaining more party Diet members' votes in the runoff election. Still, Abe apparently desires to overwhelm Ishiba in the upcoming party presidential race even in terms of the number of local votes won, to overwrite his bitter memory.

Abe is thus caught up in the way he's going to win the September leadership contest. As the tenure of the LDP president is set at three consecutive three-year terms totaling nine years, party members will inevitably focus on who will succeed Abe once his third term sets in. "After this fall, attention may be lost for an administration with its end in sight, and how to address that would be crucial," a former prime minister told the Mainichi Shimbun.

On the evening of Dec. 22 last year, Abe invited Hiromi Yoshida, secretary-general of the LDP's upper house caucus, and others to dine at a puffer fish restaurant in Tokyo's Akasaka district. Yoshida is a heavyweight belonging to the party's Nukaga faction and he manages the upper house caucus as a successor to Mikio Aoki, former chairman of the LDP's general assembly of upper house members. During the dining session, Yoshida stopped short of clarifying whether he would rally behind Abe in the September party leadership race.

Ishiba, former LDP secretary-general, is also wooing Aoki to catch up with Abe. Members of the Nukaga faction, especially those in the upper house, are obviously aiming to overturn Abe's predominance within the party. If party members throw their support behind Ishiba, they may face the risk of falling out of the mainstream force within the party. Yet, a senior member of the LDP upper house caucus belonging to the Nukaga faction said, "If Mr. Aoki tells us to support anyone other than Abe, we will comply and do so. Even if it turns out to be a losing battle, we would be able to gain the upper hand in steering the Diet once we show off the strength of the party upper house caucus during the leadership race."

For Abe, it is essential to ride through the upcoming ordinary session of the Diet flawlessly to avoid giving even the smallest chance to his rivals. During last year's regular Diet session, Abe came under fire for a series of favoritism scandals involving two school operators -- Osaka-based Moritomo Gakuen, which had ties with Abe's wife Akie, and Okayama-based Kake Educational Institution, which is headed by Abe's confidant Kotaro Kake. The approval ratings for the Cabinet plummeted as Abe's arrogance stemming from his predominance in national politics triggered a nationwide outcry.

Abe once complained that the Moritomo and Kake scandals may be a conspiracy set up by government bureaucrats. Smoldering frustrations over Abe's predominance among bureaucrats in the Kasumigaseki government center apparently feed into his concerns.

If Abe rushes to amend the war-renouncing Constitution, that could also spark more political turmoil. In his New Year's resolutions, Abe listed constitutional reform as the fourth item on his policy agenda, which may imply that he is trying not to push too far toward the goal. Abe also told LDP Vice President Masahiko Komura on Dec. 6 that he would leave everything up to him with regard to constitutional debate. For Abe to accomplish his cherished goal of reforming the postwar Constitution, he will need to both pull off an overwhelming victory in the party leadership race and create a strong economy.

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