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Dodging ghosts of leaders past, Japan's Abe could stay on longer

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Shinzo Abe has so far warded off the curse that has afflicted many a Japanese prime minister - a collapse in public support - despite presiding over a lackluster economy. He could yet become the longest-serving leader since World War II.

[TOKYO] Shinzo Abe has so far warded off the curse that has afflicted many a Japanese prime minister - a collapse in public support - despite presiding over a lackluster economy. He could yet become the longest-serving leader since World War II.

Senior ruling party lawmakers are working to allow Mr Abe to extend his tenure. Already in power almost four years, a potential change in party rules could see him in office until at least 2021, as long as the Liberal Democratic Party keeps winning elections.

That's even as Mr Abe has failed to meet many of his own economic policy goals under the Abenomics banner - deflation remains hard to budge, a stronger yen is starting to hurt exporters, and his efforts to get more women into the workforce have struggled amid a shortage of childcare and elderly care.

The economy has shrunk in 5 of the 14 quarters since he took office. And he's forged ahead with a bigger role for the military despite public unease in the strongly pacifist nation.

But while populist winds spread through many developed nations and put established leaders under pressure, Mr Abe has retained broad public confidence; his cabinet approval ratings are a creditable 50-60 per cent. There is a lack of convincing alternatives in his own party, and he's been assisted by a weak opposition.

The steady-as-she-goes mantra for Mr Abe comes after a gaffe-prone first turn as prime minister almost a decade ago. While life isn't necessarily much better for some people, a low jobless rate and decent corporate profits have meant it isn't necessarily any worse.

"People don't have much reason to complain when it comes to the economy," said Takuji Okubo, chief economist at Japan Macro Advisors. "I think that's the most important backbone behind his popularity. People feel their jobs are secure."

Several surveys this month put voter approval at the highest level in two years, contrasting with the nosediving popularity experienced by the previous six administrations, including Mr Abe's own first government. Under his leadership, the ruling coalition has won four straight national elections.

Despite losing several ministers to scandal, Mr Abe has generally kept control of his party.

His policies of increasing the defence budget and loosening restrictions on the armed forces, while divisive, could help him on the domestic front amid friction with China and an increasingly belligerent North Korea.

Mr Abe has vowed to focus on reforming working practices in Japan during the new parliamentary session, seeking to narrow the gulf in pay between regular and non-regular workers and allow more people to combine their roles as carers with paid work.

The LDP has also begun debate on changing a rule that limits party leaders to two straight three-year terms. It aims to make a decision in time for the party convention next year, enabling Mr Abe to potentially stand for re-election when his six years are up in 2018.

That could see him stay on beyond the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The move came after Mr Abe appointed Toshihiro Nikai, a vocal proponent of the extension, as his second-in-command in the party hierarchy.

If Mr Abe were to step down after the Olympics he would have served almost nine years as prime minister - longer than anyone under the postwar political system. The LDP itself has been in power for most of the past 60 years.

"Whatever we think of Abenomics, we have to remember that the Japanese workforce is basically on a full employment basis right now," said Jun Okumura, a visiting scholar at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs.


"Although the inflation target worries people who care about what the Bank of Japan does, in the meantime inflation is not hurting people with fixed incomes and new graduates are finding it much easier to find jobs," Mr Okumura said.

Employment for new graduates rose to 74.7 per cent this year - the sixth consecutive rise - and overall unemployment fell to three per cent in July, its lowest since 1995.

Most voters seem little concerned by the sluggish pace of economic change. A survey published by the Yomiuri newspaper this month found only 33 per cent of respondents said they thought Mr Abe's policies would improve the economy, while 55 per cent said they expected no such improvement. Still, 62 per cent supported his cabinet - the highest level since 2014.


Tomoyo Matsushita, a 29-year-old employee at a trading firm, said she agreed with Mr Abe's agenda, but was yet to be convinced it was working. "I think Abenomics has a valuable goal," she said. "But I'm still waiting for the economy to get better."

Longer leadership terms could provide stability, which would be beneficial, senior LDP lawmaker Hideki Makihara said in an interview with Bloomberg. He compared Japan with China, where presidents typically serve 10-year terms.

Mr Makihara, who is on the panel considering the changes, denied a shift in the rules would be made specifically for Mr Abe. The LDP needs to tread carefully to avoid alienating some voters, who are cautious on whether Mr Abe should stay on past 2018.

The Yomiuri poll showed 48 per cent of respondents favoured an extension, while 43 per cent were opposed. Other recent polls by Kyodo and the Mainichi newspaper found a majority were against the rule change.

Any downturn in the economy, which could be sparked by the strengthening yen, could also damage Mr Abe's popularity and his chances of staying on, according to Okubo, who attributes the current economic mood largely to luck and the Bank of Japan's ultra-easy monetary policy. "I think the chances are 50/50 that he will stay on."