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PM Abe must face discontent over his dominance of Japanese politics

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stands up and bows after his re-election as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is announced at the party's headquarters in central Tokyo on Sept. 20, 2018. (Mainichi/Naoki Watanabe)

For Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, it must be a bitter victory. He won his third consecutive term as leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) on Sept. 20, but there was no smile on his face.

Abe's challenger and former party secretary-general Shigeru Ishiba gained more votes from rank-and-file party members than expected. Behind this outcome was apparently a growing dissatisfaction with Abe's predominance among such voters in regional Japan. Grumbling that the premier is "untrustworthy" and "not focused on local areas" was already audible after the Abe LDP's overwhelming victory in the 2017 House of Representatives election.

Abe and Ishiba share many policies, but they are wide apart on their approach to politics. Ishiba's call for "honesty, fairness" and "getting back to an LDP with free and lively discussions" must have gained a certain level of traction among the some 1.04 million party members and 405 Diet members.

The prime minister repeatedly stated that he would "manage the administration with modesty and care" whenever he faced criticism on favoritism scandals involving school operators Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Educational Institution. In reality, however, he did not tackle fundamental issues behind the scandals, such as the relationships between politicians and bureaucrats, and the prime minister's office and the ruling party. Instead, he often appeared evasive when faced with serious questions.

Uttering words of modesty is not enough. Over the coming three years of his LDP presidential term, Abe must make efforts to restore public confidence in politics without trying too much to save his own skin.

The prime minister has indicated his intention to submit a bill to revise the Constitution during the coming extraordinary session of the Diet, but we really don't see a pressing need to amend the war-renouncing Article 9. Rather than changing Article 9, what Abe needs to pursue is discussion and implementation of policies to meet the needs of a public anxious about the future.

During the LDP presidential race, the prime minister eagerly emphasized his own achievements by citing all sorts of good numbers. But on Japan's overtaxed social security framework, his comments were limited to a vague commitment to reform the system within the next three years to accommodate the "100-year lifespan generation," and giving people the option to delay receiving pensions until age 70 or older.

Abe needs to restore a relationship of trust with the people, rapidly respond to globalization, and establish a mid- to long-term strategy to deal with Japan's aging society and depopulation.

(Japanese original by Chiyako Saito, Political News Editor)

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