By Guan Zhaoyu Source: China Daily Published: 2018-9-1
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has announced he would contest the Liberal Democratic Party's presidential election scheduled for Sept 20, sparking speculation that he is eyeing a third consecutive term as prime minister because the LDP leadership election is seen as an advance contest for Japan's top political post.
For both Japan and Abe, this election is of great significance. If Abe contests the LDP election, as he announced during a visit to a fishing facility in Kagoshima Prefecture in southern Kyushu on Sunday, and is re-elected LDP leader, it could pave the way for Japan to have its longest-serving prime minister.
Japan will see a series of major events in the next few years, such as the general election in the country, the G20 Summit in Osaka in 2019, and the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. Japan's constitutional referendum, too, is likely to be held in a couple of years. And any leader who presides over these significant events is sure to have his or her political legacy inscribed in Japan's history. So, for Abe, winning the LDP presidential election is important both politically and historically.
Since being elected Japanese prime minister for the second time in 2012, Abe has been dogged by scandals involving Cabinet officials and family members, and the much-trumpeted "Abenomics", Abe's economic policy, has drawn wide criticism for having promised the moon but failing to deliver.
But no leader has appeared strong enough to politically challenge Abe in the past six years. Fumio Kishida, chair of LDP Policy Research Council and once viewed as Abe's top rival in the LDP, formally decided last month not to take part in the LDP election. For Abe, the only real contender now is Shigeru Ishiba, former LDP secretary-general.
According to a recent survey conducted by Nikon Keizai Shimbun and Tokyo TV covering 950 people aged above 18 years, about 39 percent of the respondents supported Abe as the next LDP president－with only 31 percent favoring Ishiba. Within the LDP, as high as 65 percent people support Abe while only 21 percent favor Ishiba. And given that Abe has won the support of five major LDP factions, he has a very good chance of winning the LDP presidential election.
But since the LDP election is less than one month away, Abe has a lot of work to do to win the party's leadership contest.
First, he has to garner more local support. In the past, candidates usually chose Tokyo to announce their decision to contest the LDP leadership election. That's why many find Abe's choice of Kagoshima Prefecture to announce his candidature somewhat unusual, if not strange. Was he trying to woo local voters in southern Japan? Perhaps. After all, despite losing the LDP presidential election to Abe in 2012, Ishiba won an overwhelming majority of local votes. Maybe Abe doesn't want that to happen again.
And since Abe's economic policies have not made much difference to local economic recovery, and his not-so-strong response to major natural disasters in Japan's western regions, where the economy is relatively weak, has raised a controversy, he is paying greater attention to the grassroots economy.
Second, Abe needs to downplay the debate on Japan's constitutional revisions and shift his focus to people's livelihoods, especially because two candidates contesting the LDP presidential election have made the subject the focus of their debate. Abe is keen to submit the constitutional amendment draft to the interim parliament in October, so as to fulfill the requirement for holding a national referendum on the Constitution next year to eventually revise the pacifist Constitution.
In contrast, Ishiba doesn't seem to be in a hurry to push for constitutional revision; instead, he hopes to discuss it on the basis of popular public opinion.
There may be a broad consensus within the LDP on constitutional revision, but it is more of Abe's personal ambition. There are even concerns within the LDP over the reckless move to promote constitutional revision. It seems Abe is using the constitutional revision more as a weapon against his rivals, and less as a way to diversify his policies.
But what do the Japanese people want from Abe and his government? A recent Kyodo News Agency poll shows the top priorities for the public are annuity and healthcare, followed by economic policy－constitutional revision is their least concern. To win popular public support, therefore, Abe has to focus on people's livelihood issues, not on constitutional revision. Despite the challenges he faces, Abe is still the favorite to win the LDP presidential election. So his main party rival, Ishiba, should start preparing seriously for the election in 2021.
The author is an associate research fellow with the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China.