Japan’s ruling party yesterday approved a change in party rules that could pave the way for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to become the country’s longest-serving leader in the post-World War II era.
It is a remarkable turnaround for Abe, who lasted only a year during an earlier stint as prime minister, and in a country that had six prime ministers in the six years before Abe returned to office in December 2012.
Analysts say that Japan’s 62-year-old leader learned from his first term in office, when he focused on divisive issues such as constitutional revision and patriotic education that contributed to his early downfall. This time, he has made an expansionary economic policy, “Abenomics,” front and center at election time.
“The interesting thing is that formerly Abe did not seem to be interested in economic policy,” Tokyo University professor of politics Yu Uchiyama said.
He said that Abe, a conservative, had been more interested in things like constitutional change.
“But right after he got power for the second time, he did not put forth such a right-wing agenda. Instead he introduced and emphasized the economic issue,” Uchiyama said.
That does not mean Abe has given up on goals such as revising the constitution, which was drafted by a US-led occupation force after World War II.
However, Abe needs to win over a reluctant public — any amendment requires approval by two-thirds of the legislature and a national referendum — and that will take time.
“The constitution represents the shape of our country, and it should describe Japan’s ideal future,” Abe told the annual convention of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
He said the LDP will take the lead in promoting discussion over details of a revision.
The party yesterday rubber-stamped a decision by its leaders last fall to allow the head of the party to run for a third three-year term, rather than be limited to two. In Japan’s parliamentary system, the ruling party leader generally becomes the prime minister.
The change would allow Abe to stay until 2021, if he can maintain the support of his party and voters, rather than step down in September next year.
Abe, now in his fifth year in office, is Japan’s sixth longest serving prime minister since 1945.
The record holder is Eisaku Sato, who led the country for more than seven years from 1964 to 1972.
Uchiyama said that Abe has maintained his hold on power in part by taking advantage of electoral and administrative reforms that strengthened the prime minister’s control of both his party and the bureaucracy.
Jeff Kingston, a Japan expert at Temple University’s Japan campus in Tokyo, called Abe the most powerful prime minister in the postwar era.
“There has been an incredible concentration and centralization of power in the prime minister’s office under Abe, unlike his predecessors, where power was widely distributed and the prime minister was one among many,” he said.
Still, given public opinion, Kingston gave Abe only a 50-50 chance of achieving constitutional revision.
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