Japan’s political landscape is not expected to stabilise to suit Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s style of politics despite the Cabinet reshuffle on August 3. Support for his administration is not constant, although approval ratings have risen slightly.
Abe is becoming increasingly unpopular for his alleged involvement in scandals and his high-handed approach to important issues such as security-related legislation. While the Cabinet reshuffle has brought him some relief, big troubles remain. He is still embroiled in controversy for allegedly pressurising the Ministry of Education to allow his friend Kotaro Kake to open a new veterinary school. Most Japanese say Abe has not fully explained the issue in parliament.
The Ministry of Defence, under Tomomi Inada who resigned a week before Abe reshuffled the Cabinet, covered up Japan Ground Self-Defence Force’s activities during a United Nations peacekeeping mission in South Sudan. The two houses of parliament held only ad hoc hearings on the scandal as demanded by the opposition.
When his approval ratings reached a record high early this year, Abe was certain of leading the ruling Liberal Democratic Party well beyond 2020. But with his rating dipping since then, some LDP lawmakers are revving up for the party’s leadership election in September 2018.
Former Japanese defence minister Shigeru Ishiba, who has openly criticised the Abe administration, has hinted he could contest the LDP’s top post. Fumio Kishida resigned as foreign minister to become the LDP’s policy chief, in an apparent move to prepare for the leadership election. Shortly after being appointed internal affairs minister, Seiko Noda had said she is ready to take on Abe for the LDP leader’s post. Noda had distanced herself from Abe after her bid to win the LDP leadership election in 2015 failed.
The LDP has been dominating Japanese politics thanks to the weak opposition camp, which has failed to capitalise on the nosediving support for the Abe administration. However, new political undercurrents may be strong enough to bother Abe and the LDP.
Goshi Hosono, a member of the lower house of parliament and former deputy president of the Democratic Party of Japan, has quit the largest opposition party and is planning to float a new party. He is exploring various possibilities, including working with popular Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike. The fledgling Tomin First no Kai, or Tokyoites First Party, which Koike effectively heads, dealt a crushing blow to the LDP and DPJ in the capital’s assembly election in July.
In a Nikkei Shimbun survey on who should be Japan’s prime minister, Koike ranked third, only behind Abe and former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi’s son, Shinjiro Koizumi. Although Koike has brushed off speculations that she is interested in Japan’s highest office, a member of the lower house and Koike protege, Masaru Wakasa, said that he has launched Japan First, a society which aims to train people interested in contesting elections in the future. Wakasa was expelled from the LDP for supporting Koike in the Tokyo governor’s election last year.
Now an independent, Wakasa intends to establish a political party, using the Japan First society as its training base. And Koike is scheduled to deliver a lecture at the society’s first meeting on September 16.
The Tokyoites First Party’s big win has given Wakasa and other like-minded people hope for changing Japan’s political dynamics. The new party could be an alternative choice for the public, which is unhappy with the Abe administration and the existing opposition parties. Some nonaffiliated lawmakers and DPJ members are said to be in touch with the Japan First society. But before the new opposition forces gain ground, Abe could call a snap election, perhaps later this year. In an interview with the Nikkei Shimbun in January, LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai said: “The successor to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe cannot be anybody but himself.”
The future of Abe does not seem to be so sure now.