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Prime Minister Abe’s Third Win at the LDP Presidential Election: What’s Next for Japanese Politics?
2018.09.21  Friday
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Myon woo Lee

Prime Minister Abe’s Third Win at the LDP Presidential Election: What’s Next for Japanese Politics?



No. 2018-42 (September 21, 2018)

Dr. Lee Myon-woo

Vice President, the Sejong Institute


Winning the presidential election of the Japanese Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) on September 20 as generally predicted, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe paved the road to becoming the longest-serving Prime Minister in Japanese history. Since most Japanese media expected a comfortable victory for the incumbent around the announcement of the elections, the result itself was not a surprise. Nonetheless, it is intriguing and peculiar as both candidates in the election—the incumbent Abe and former LDP Secretary General Shigeru Ishiba—could claim the election a success.

The LDP leadership is contested for 810 votes, half from the LDP members in the Japanese Diet and the remaining half from former party members and supporters in the regions. Prime Minister Abe snatched his third victory, obtaining 553 votes (329 votes from the LDP lawmakers and 224 points from the party members) and keeping his position. In percentage terms, Abe received 68.3 percent of the votes in total—81.2 percent from his fellow lawmakers and 55.3 percent from the rank-and-file members. While he failed to attain his goal of an ‘overwhelming victory’ in the first challenge to prime ministership for three times in a row since the beginning of the so-called ‘1955 system,’ Prime Minister Abe received a satisfying result considerably close to what he aimed at. Various factors may be attributed to Abe’s emphasis on the ‘crushing victory’ at the press conference after the election results were announced, stating that he nearly secured 70 percent of the votes. The results suggest that he could boast it as such.

On contrary, the other contestant, Ishiba Shigeru, secured 254 votes (31.4 percent in total), 73 from the parliamentarians (18 percent) and 181 points from the party members (44.7 percent). It could be disappointing to Ishiba who attempted to overturn the disadvantage in the lawmakers’ votes by gaining the upper hand in winning more votes among party members. Particularly, the 44.7 percent that candidate Ishiba gained from the party members was a huge downturn from his previous attempt in 2012. As most predictions favored Prime Minister Abe and treated Abe’s victory as a fait accompli due to the various pressures rolled out by Abe’s side, Ishiba’s achievements should not be belittled, reminding the point that the media focused on whether Ishiba could pass the 200-vote threshold. This is the reason why some observers evaluated that some regional party members ‘upset’ Prime Minister Abe, expressing their discontent against the current leadership and that the former LDP secretary general widened his reach for the next LDP presidential elections.

Despite these aspects, Abe’s ‘sweeping victory’ epitomizes this LDP presidential election and it laid the grounds for strong leadership which emboldens the prime minister’s policy drive in the future. Then, what will Prime Minister Abe do in the next three years based on the resolute leadership acquired through this election? Highlighting the near-70 percent support and mentioning that he received a strong encouragement to exert determined leadership in the aforementioned press conference, Prime Minister Abe laid out the following list as major challenges: ‘Japan’s social security system to become a system oriented to all generations,’ ‘settlement of post-war Japanese diplomacy,’ and ‘constitutional amendment’ among others.

As a matter of fact, not a single challenge is straightforward, thus, requiring an unwavering leadership. Taking the issue of ‘constitutional amendment’ as an example, several high obstacles—consensus within the LDP, coordination with the coalition partner Komeito, legislative procedures in the Diet, and the national referendum – lie ahead. The first hurdle of consensus within the party seems relatively easy with the party’s draft last March despite the different views within the party. However, other hurdles – coordination with Komeito, legislative procedures for the amendment of the constitution, the referendum, etc.—still potentially involve many difficulties and troubles. Especially, the 25th regular election of members of the House of Councillors scheduled in July 2019 has gained spotlight related to the legislative proceedings on the constitutional amendment. Considering the aforesaid ‘upset in the countryside,’ the LDP may lose seats or suffer defeat, failing to secure two-thirds within the upper house. In such a scenario, the Japanese politics will plunge into ‘darkness with opaque outlook.’

The longstanding assignment of ‘settlement of post-war Japanese diplomacy’ that covers ‘settlement of the territorial dispute with Russia,’ ‘the abduction issue and normalization of diplomatic relations with North Korea’ is also a tricky task. Recently, as Tokyo’s bafflement about President Putin’s proposition—signing a peace treaty with no strings attached—suggests, the Northern Territories/Kuril Islands dispute with Russia is expected to persist in an entangled state despite Prime Minister Abe’s strenuous efforts. A similar situation continues with regards to the pending abduction and denuclearization issues with North Korea.

One fortunate point is that the Japanese cabinet deems the normalization of diplomatic relations with North Korea as one of the tasks in settling its post-war diplomacy. This is relevant in the sense that Japan has intentions to engage in talks and consult with North Korea, instead of pushing away, albeit maintaining hawkish attitude toward North Korea due to its nuclear and missile development. Given that the leaders that count their days in the office generally tend to ruminate on how to leave their mark in history, Prime Minister Abe, who will be planning his last three years at the helm based on firm leadership, making the North Korea issue as an agenda appears to be a positive sign for DPRK-Japan bilateral relations and stability and peace in Northeast Asia. Taking this fact into account, the incumbent Moon Jae-in administration which pursues a ‘two-track’ policy on Japan, should newly establish the relationship of trust and cooperation with Japan so as to encourage Japan to orient toward such constructive direction and to associate with key pillars in its policy regarding North Korea and Northeast Asia.