Thursday, December 27, 2012

How Long Will the Abe Administration Last?

I'll take the “over” on a 3-1/2 years over-under as long as Abe remains in functional health. The outcome of a 2016 double election will determine whether or not he'll beat Koizumi's record.

Let’s tackle this issue by asking the following question: How could Abe’s term be cut short?

First, Prime Minister Abe may call a snap election in order to break through a legislative impasse. That is highly unlikely to happen until the next House of Representatives (HoR) general election, since the LDP-Komeito coalition—a durable coalition between two broadly likeminded parties—has a HoR supermajority.

Second, he may feel compelled to resign after a disastrous LDP showing in the 2013 House of Councillors (HoC) election. However, that is not going to happen unless the Japan Restoration Party, Your Party, and the DPJ can plan and execute a single member district-by-district pooling of votes. You only need to look at the results of the 2007 and 2010 HoC elections to see that. And what are the chances of the three main opposition parties doing that?

Third, he may feel compelled to resign or, more plausibly, defeated in the 2014 LDP leadership election, because his poll numbers fall through the political floor, and it is true that the previous six one-year administrations have seemed to wither and die, like annual plants. It is his competence and leadership and not his position on any specific issue that he must worry about. Here, he is protected on the legislative flank by the supermajority, while the LDP itself, already more disciplined than the DPJ, must have learned from the lessons of the DPJ. He has also been lowering expectations on potentially incendiary issues during and immediately after the election campaign and has assembled what appears to be a solid list of cabinet ministers. Loose lips sink ships, of course, and Nobuteru Ishihara and, to a lesser extent, Taro Aso have the potential to chime in with the odd false note. However, they have served in the past without much incident (or much distinction, but that’s another story), so I’m not betting on them doing anything too foolish any time soon.

Of course there’s the matter of Abe himself, specifically, “his political skills, or his tin ears, or his grasp of language and issues”, as one usually astute observer of the Japanese political economy scene puts it*. Now my friends and acquaintances know that I have never thought much of Abe as a politician. In fact, I’ve been mystified by his original rise to power as well as his sudden, unforeseen comeback. But then, I never understood Koizumi’s charms either, and I’ve always worried that I could be underestimating Abe because he got all his schooling in an escalator school system for rich kids. Prejudging Shinjiro Koizumi is a perfect example of how that kind of “misunderestimation” can lead you astray, and Abe has been judged to be worthy by his LDP peers, the very people who know him best professionally and also have plenty of personal skin in the game. I do not understand him, I never may; but he does have my respect. (I am aware that there are people who think that the people who selected him are just plain stupid. I have long shed belief in my own such omniscience.)

* If you want to know the identity of this person, please subscribe to the SSJ Forum. You should be able to find his comment in the archives.

Now it is useful to remember that Abe’s gaffes, in my opinion, have not been of the off-the-cuff, weird stuff that someone like Nobuteru Ishihara sometimes emits but expressions of deeply held views—especially unpopular in China and South Korea—or attempts to explain them. He would obvious do better if he had the Koizumis’ natural talent to know the right thing to say at the right time, but he doesn’t. But he can learn from his mistakes, and he has had the lead-up to the election to get some potential snags out of his system or at least air them and then put them into mothballs.

Note also that he is assembling an impressive array of political appointees, beginning with Yasutake Tango (ex-MOF), Shotaro Yachi (ex-MOFA), Koichi Hamada (economist, Yale), and Isao Iijima (Prime Minister Koizumi’s political majordomo extraordinaire) as senior advisors. I’m a little worried about Professor Hamada—whom I like and very much respect—because he is not a political player to the best of my knowledge Also, this does not appear to be the beginnings of a team for radical change. However, it does look like a pretty good firewall in the making as far as navigating around potential pitfalls is concerned.
 * The media has also taken note of the presence of several METI officials, current and former, who caught Abe’s eyes during his first administration and also when he served under Prime Minister Koizumi. One of them will serve as Abe’s political secretary, which technically puts him charge of the administrative secretaries seconded from MOF, MOFA, the National Policy Agency, and METI. Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto was the last prime minister to do that when he picked the METI official who had been his secretary when he was METI minister. The official is Kenji Eda, who is now a HoR member for Your Party.

Of course there’s always the unknown unknown, like the abductee revelations and Fukushima Daiichi, which are probably more likely than an asteroid hitting the Earth and finally making Francis Fukuyama’s prediction come true. But guessing at black swans is difficult and is something that I have little aptitude for.

Finally, some people wonder about Abe’s actual health. In fact, that was the first thing that I heard at an evening get-together of mostly corporate executives and a smattering of academics when the question turned to the political scene. But people raising that question are essentially implying that there is a conspiracy involving at least one doctor, one nurse, and one apothecary and the process of locating them without disclosing said fact to third parties. Like most conspiracy theories, it just doesn’t make sense. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, Abe is like so many other people in developed countries: a person with a chronic health problem whose symptoms he avoids by taking up-to-date medication and otherwise following doctor’s orders. Besides, he’s visibly more animated and robust than the last time we saw him at length.

I have not addressed the possibility that demands for a “constitutional” House of Representatives will become irresistible, forcing Abe to call an early election. I’ve come to the tentative conclusion that the likelihood is pretty small. I’ll try to remember to address it at some length.


Anonymous said...

Actually, I think the possibility of the Supreme Court ruling that the Election was not only unconstitutional, but also partially void, making an election unavoidable is higher than an asteroid hitting the Earth, but may be wrong.
Of course, there's no way of predicting whether the LDP would lose such an election, but by the time span that the SCOJ operates, a verdict should come around early 2014.

Jun Okumura said...


I've argued before how impractical and unlikely a Japanese court decision rendering an election null and void, retroactively or not. Your comment is a good reminder that I need to update it, including some commentary on the political fallout of a decision that falls short of that.