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Abe fears lame-duck loss of approval after third-term victory as LDP president

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks to the Japan Business Federation (Keidanren) Meeting of Councillors, in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on Dec. 26, 2018. (Mainichi/Kimi Takeuchi)

TOKYO -- As the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe marked its sixth anniversary after his return to power in 2012 on Dec. 26, 2018, Abe is closer to becoming the longest-serving prime minister in office, if his current tenure is combined with his first one from September 2006 to August 2007. The challenge for him as he enters his seventh year as prime minister and his last term as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), is how to avoid the pitfalls of being a lame-duck leader.

The LDP decided to expand the maximum tenure of party presidents to three consecutive terms for a total of nine years at its party convention in March 2017. It was, of course, a change in the system specifically for Prime Minister Abe. Shortly before the change was made, the following exchange had taken place between a senior party official and the prime minister:

Senior official: "You can't be thinking of a third term. That's just not right."

Abe: "I understand what you're trying to say. But as soon as it's determined that my term ends next year (2018), I'm going to become a lame duck."

Seeing the serious expression on the prime minister's face, the party official raised no further objections.

In the LDP presidential race this September, Abe beat former LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba to win his third term. Abe has now truly entered a period in which every moment for his administration is a fight against the perils of him being a lame duck.

In the Cabinet reshuffle Abe undertook in October, he appointed 12 new Cabinet members, taking a by-the-book method of accepting the demands of all major intraparty factions to fill the positions. As a result, a Mainichi Shimbun public opinion poll conducted shortly after the appointments showed an approval rating of 37 percent. "It's because (Abe) now sees the end that he had no choice but to listen to the demands of each faction," a former prime minister pointed out.

Shockwaves emanated from the Finance Ministry during this year's ordinary session of the Diet with the discovery that official records regarding the highly discounted sale of state-owned land to private school operator Moritomo Gakuen had been doctored, and revelations of sexual harassment allegations against a then top ministry bureaucrat. However, Abe kept Taro Aso in his positions as finance minister and deputy prime minister, out of concern that if he ousted Aso -- the backbone of the Abe administration since its second launch in 2012 -- Abe would put his own footing at risk.

The prime minister's resolve to brush off any allegations, no matter how big or small, remained unchanged in the extraordinary session of the Diet.

A magazine reported allegations of influence-peddling on the National Tax Agency by Satsuki Katayama, state minister in charge of regional revitalization, who was also found to have had numerous erroneous entries in her political funding reports. Meanwhile, Yoshitaka Sakurada, minister in charge of Olympic and Paralympic preparations, repeatedly made inconsistent statements in the Diet and at news conferences.

No matter how much the qualifications of these Cabinet members were brought into question, Abe defended them. "I would like them to serve out their responsibilities," Abe said of the ministers, both of whom belong to the Nikai faction chaired by LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, a close ally of Prime Minister Abe.

After the December 2012 launch of the second Abe Cabinet, the administration was plagued by scandals involving its Cabinet ministers. In 2014, then Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Yuko Obuchi and then Justice Minister Midori Matsushima; in 2015, then Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Koya Nishikawa; in 2016, then State Minister in charge of Economic Revitalization Akira Amari; and in 2017, then State Minister in charge of Reconstruction Masahiro Imamura and then Defense Minister Tomomi Inada all resigned as a result of scandals. This year, only Tetsuma Esaki, who had been serving as state minister in charge of Okinawa and Northern Territories affairs, stepped down citing health reasons.

Prime Minister Abe cannot help but be on the defensive because in September, the ratio of votes he won from party members -- a major focal point of the LDP presidential race -- stood at just 55.3 percent, leaving him with concerns about his popularity. At an LDP board meeting Dec. 18, senior party officials voiced apprehensions about the House of Councillors election next summer. Worried, Shoji Nishida, an upper house LDP lawmaker from the Hosoda faction, visited the prime minister's office Dec. 21 with Hiromi Yoshida, secretary-general of the LDP caucus in the upper house, to recommend that the prime minister postpone the planned consumption tax hike in October of next year from 8 percent to 10 percent.

Abe listened to the proposal from Nishida and Yoshida, but gently declined. The prime minister had already postponed raising the tax rate twice. And since the fiscal 2019 budget incorporated generous measures to counteract the planned tax raise, it would be all the more difficult to postpone the tax hike a third time.

The ruling bloc forced through the Diet the revised Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act, which will expand the number of foreign workers permitted to work in Japan, but remains lacking in detail. The government began dumping soil into the waters off the Henoko district of the northern Okinawa Prefecture city of Nago to build a base to replace U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in the city of Ginowan, in southern Okinawa Island, despite strong local opposition. Following these two incidents, public opinion polls conducted by multiple news outlets showed that approval ratings for the Abe Cabinet had dropped by around 5 percentage points.

Perhaps this signals the beginning of the end of Abe's exclusive dominance.

(Mainichi)

This is Part 1 of a three-part series.

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