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Abe wins third term as LDP leader - a step closer to becoming Japan's longest-serving PM

As the leader of the ruling LDP, Mr Abe faces a full slate of challenges, including towering national debt, the increasing threat of climate change-related disasters, a rapidly ageing society and the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.


PRIME Minister Shinzo Abe won a commanding victory in a vote for the leadership of Japan's governing party Thursday, moving him closer to his dream of becoming the longest-serving prime minister in the country's history and fuelling his hopes of revising its pacifist constitution.

His win over a single challenger came despite the headwinds he faced from domestic political scandals, stagnant wages and his declining influence with US President Donald Trump, particularly in negotiations over North Korea's nuclear programme.

The victory gives Mr Abe, 63, a new three-year term as president of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and assures him of remaining prime minister. If he remains in office until November 2019 - just short of seven years after being elected in December 2012 - he will surpass the previous longevity record for prime minister, set during the Meiji era in the early 20th century by Taro Katsura.

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Mr Abe faces a full slate of challenges, including towering national debt, the increasing threat of climate change-related disasters, a rapidly ageing society and the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

"Cooperating with you, I'd like to do my best to hand over to our children's generation a Japan filled with hope and pride,"he said in his acceptance speech.

Above all, analysts said, Mr Abe's signature accomplishment is his stable political leadership in a country that had grown weary of a conveyor belt of prime ministers.

Critics have been disappointed by his entanglement in influence-peddling scandals and his failure to deliver stronger economic growth or the gender equality measures that he has long promised. But his opponent in the party election, Shigeru Ishiba, a former defence minister, failed to generate enough enthusiasm to justify a change of course.

"People may not be wildly excited, but they can't think of anybody who is going to do any better," said Sheila Smith, a Japan expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "Whether it's the party or it's the Japanese voter at large, I think they are pretty risk averse right now, given all the challenges that Japan faces, not least of which is the Trump administration."

Next week in New York, Mr Abe - who has persistently cultivated a cozy relationship with Mr Trump - is expected to meet with him on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. He could come under pressure to enter bilateral trade talks as the Trump administration mulls threatened tariffs on automobile imports.

Mr Abe, who led Japan's effort to restart talks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a sweeping multilateral trade agreement that Mr Trump exited during his first week in office, will have to Abe wins extended term, a step closer to becoming longest serving PMshow his resolve in resisting Mr Trump's desire for a two-way trade deal between their nations.

Domestically, his biggest test could come as he tries to revise Japan's war-renouncing Constitution, which was enacted by US post-war occupiers in 1947.

"I'd like to work on constitutional reform together with you," Mr Abe said in his victory address to the Liberal Democrats. Amending the pacifist clause has long been one of his most cherished goals, as his grandfather, former prime minister Nobusuke Kishi, tried and failed to do.

Analysts said that Mr Abe faces considerable risks, given that any change to the Constitution has to be approved not only by Parliament, but by the general public.

"If he cannot win a national referendum, it will be a suicidal act for him," said Yuichi Hosoya, a professor of international politics at Keio University in Tokyo.

A poll conducted this month by NHK, the public broadcaster, found that only 18 per cent of those surveyed would support a constitutional change if a bill was submitted this fall. About a third said submitting such a measure this fall was not necessary, leaving about 40 per cent undecided.

That Mr Abe has made it this far into a third term as party leader is a testament to a dramatic political turnaround. As prime minister for a disastrous year from 2006 to 2007, he was dogged by scandals and oversaw a catastrophic election loss.

After being elected prime minister again in 2012, he focused on the economy, promoting policies of low interest rates and high infrastructure spending in a platform he dubbed Abenomics. Under his leadership this time around, the Liberal Democrats have expanded their dominance in Parliament.

"He matured before he came back to the prime ministership in 2012," said Hiroshi Nakanishi, a professor of international politics at Kyoto University. "I think the basis of Abe's strength is the economy." But with a declining and ageing population and debt that is more than double the size of the national economy, he has limited room to manoeuvre, particularly if a global trade war becomes a drag on growth.

"There are lots of worries, and Prime Minister Abe has already extended all sorts of means through Abenomics," said Mieko Nakabayashi, a former member of Japan's House of Representatives and now a professor in the School of Social Sciences at Waseda University, Tokyo.

"He has utilised all the possible tools already." NYTIMES