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08:15 7 March 2017

FOCUS: Abe may hang on until 2021 through Constitution compromise

By Sophie Jackman
TOKYO, March 7, Kyodo

If Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is still in power up to the September 2021 deadline newly set by his Liberal Democratic Party, it will be because of Japanese voters' craving for stability and a compromise on constitutional reform, analysts say.

Following a rule change to extend party presidents' term limits, formalized at Sunday's annual party convention, Abe is expected to seek and win a third term as party president in a leadership election in the fall of next year.

Barring a coup within the LDP or a rare change of government, in November 2019 he would become the longest serving prime minister in Japan's history, including before and during World War II.

Analysts suggest the lack of a significant rival will leave Abe holding onto the reins of the LDP until his term is up.

And the party's ruling coalition with junior partner Komeito is thought unlikely to be thrown out of government while voters remain unconvinced the opposition could do a better job. This is despite the main opposition Democratic Party's first female leader Renho having vowed to remake the party into a viable alternative.

Abe learned lessons from his first year-long stint as prime minister, said Brad Glosserman, executive director of the Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based foreign policy research institute.

He resigned in 2007, later citing ill health, before returning to the role in December 2012.

Abe's desire to amend Japan's post-World War II Constitution for the first time in its history has not faded since then, but he has bided his time and now seems prepared to make the proposed changes more palatable to voters, Glosserman said.

The most contentious point of constitutional reform discussion has been Article 9, under which Japan renounces the right to wage war or possess "war potential" in the form of armed forces.

Late last year, an LDP official said the party will no longer pursue a 2012 draft amendment proposal that included some radical changes, including to Article 9.

"Without question, Abe understands that the Japanese public is not fully behind him yet on constitutional reform, it has to be incremental and he also has to be seen to be working on the bread-and-butter issues that matter to most Japanese," Glosserman said.

Any proposal to amend the Constitution legally needs the support of at least two-thirds of lawmakers in both houses of the Diet before gaining a majority of votes in a national referendum.

The ruling coalition and pro-amendment opposition parties already have a two-thirds majority, but have indicated they will aim to reach some sort of consensus with the rest of parliament in light of public sensitivity over the Constitution.

Although in recent years relying on Komeito's support to govern, the LDP has dominated Japanese politics for almost all of the post-World War II period.

The largest opposition party, now called the Democratic Party, managed to seize power from 2009 to 2012.

The LDP's history in government has given it the flexibility to shift to the left or right depending on public demand, limiting the Democratic Party's ability to offer a point of contrast.

The lack of perceived difference between the major parties makes it difficult to convince Japanese voters to take a chance on the opposition at the expense of a stable leader.

"From former Prime Minister (Yoshiro) Mori taking office in April 2000 to Prime Minister Abe taking office (for the second time) in December 2012, there were eight changes of prime minister, leaving Japan greatly troubled by a lack of consistency," according to Naohiko Baba, chief economist at Goldman Sachs Japan Co.

Abe's legacy will almost certainly be tainted by the failure to achieve core promises of the "Abenomics" economic and fiscal policy mix aimed at pulling Japan out of long-term deflation, said Junichi Makino, chief economist at SMBC Nikko Securities.

"The goal of reaching 600 trillion yen ($5.27 billion) in nominal gross domestic product by fiscal 2020 will be highly difficult to achieve, and inflation is nowhere near the stated 2 percent target," Makino said.

But Japanese voters are less worried about these goals and Abenomics' promises of structural reform, and more concerned about the immediate impact of price shifts on their wallets, Makino said.

While past polls have suggested voters have become disillusioned with the promises of Abenomics, this has not extended to a drop in approval for the Abe administration as a whole.

A mid-February Kyodo News poll put the Abe Cabinet's approval rating at 61.7 percent, against 27.2 percent disapproval.

The poll was taken prior to scrutiny of Abe and his wife Akie over their apparent links to an Osaka Prefecture school operator building an elementary school on a piece of formerly government-owned land it bought at a fraction of the appraisal price.

But even this uproar is unlikely to be enough to unseat Abe, looking at the history of his second turn at power, in which he has dodged scandal affecting Cabinet ministers and survived risky moves including shifting the direction of Japan's postwar security policy.

Although the election of U.S. President Donald Trump fueled concern that his administration could turn its back on the Japan-U.S. alliance, it is clear by now that "what Trump wants, by and large, is what Abe wants," Glosserman said.

Greater political risk for Abe could lie in pursuing his commitment to solving a decades-long territorial row with Moscow over a Russian-held island chain claimed by Japan.

Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed in December last year to start talks on joint economic activities on the islands, which stretch north off Hokkaido. But the chasm between their views on the isles' sovereignty may prove insurmountable.

==Kyodo

  • LDP passes rule change that could see Abe remain PM until 2021
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