The Buzz

After Abe: Will Japan Fall Back Into Old Habits?

Barely three years ago, Japan watchers were wondering what it would take to break the country’s streak of short-term prime ministers—six premiers had cycled through office in six years and a total of fourteen in two decades. Then Shinzo Abe upended expectations by returning to power and projecting an aura of strong leadership. He has already become one of Japan’s longest-serving prime ministers and, in the process, racked up an impressive list of foreign policy accomplishments. In light of his success, one could assume that the problem of short-lived, weak prime ministers is a thing of the past. But a recent Japan Center for International Exchange study, Looking for Leadership, warns that Abe may be the exception rather than the rule. Post-Abe, Japan is likely to slip back into the pattern of frequent leadership changes.

Abe has managed to succeed since returning to the premiership in December 2012, in contrast to his disappointing performance in his first term in office a decade ago. Then the prime minister was widely perceived as lacking the political skills that the job required. His government seemed adrift, floating from one scandal to another, prioritizing issues such as “patriotic education” with limited appeal to the general public, and seemingly lacking any clear message or mission.

Yet this time the Abe government has shown considerable skill in juggling politics and policymaking. The Abe cabinet made economic revitalization its top priority, deftly packaging it as Abenomics and rolling it out in a way that branded Abe as a bold leader. The cabinet has carefully managed its approval ratings by sequencing major initiatives with the political calendar, ensuring that controversial measures were wrapped up well before elections to give the ruling party time to rebound from any political damage. And Abe leveraged his political momentum to silence intra-party rivals, for example ensuring that all of the cabinet members fell in line behind him. Much of the credit for this deft political management could be given to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, however it is also clear that Abe learned a great deal about political pragmatism and how to shepherd his political capital in the wilderness.

Nonetheless, the Abe cabinet would never have been able to play its hand so well without its good luck and timing. The greatest gift that a politician can receive is a deeply flawed enemy, and Abe has benefited enormously from the haplessness of his opposition. He returned to power in a landslide victory, which even he admitted was more a sign of voter disgust with the failure of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) than support for his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). This gave his ruling coalition the rare advantage of a veto-proof, two-thirds majority in the Lower House. Since then, the continuing missteps of the DPJ and a yearning for political stability have helped Abe to maintain public support and party unity.

The electoral landscape was also favorable to Abe. He came into office via a general election, which gave him greater credibility than if he had just inherited the post after a party election, as most of Japan’s prime ministers do. There was no unified opposition in the Upper House that could easily block his plans. Plus, Abe faced the July 2013 Upper House while his popularity was still cresting, and once he successfully passed that hurdle he did not face any other mandatory party or general elections for over two years, more than enough time for Abe to consolidate his power and allow his government to pick and choose its electoral battles.

This combination of skillful political management, good timing, and no small measure of luck has enabled the Abe government to overcome the Japanese system’s daunting institutional obstacles to strong prime ministerial leadership. However, once he steps down, his successors will face the same institutional constraints that have made it so hard for previous prime ministers to lead.

For one, in Japan, the prime minister still has remarkably little direct control over the legislative process, which makes it surprisingly difficult for him to implement his agenda. Unlike the United Kingdom, where the cabinet decides which legislation goes forward and how to sequence it, Japanese legislative agenda and timetable remain the prerogative of the Diet’s committee chairmen and steering committees. This allows backbenchers to delay or block legislation even when it is a top priority for the cabinet, and the resulting legislative gridlock has increasingly exacted a heavy toll during elections. Abe’s successors are unlikely to come into office with a strong hand that they can dominate party rivals and steamroll the opposition from the start in the way Abe did.