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Shinzo Abe becomes Japan’s longest-serving prime minister

Abe broke the previous record set by Taro Katsura over a century ago as Wednesday marked his 2887th day in…

By Jenny Scordamaglia , in International , at November 20, 2019 Tags: , ,

Abe broke the previous record set by Taro Katsura over a century ago as Wednesday marked his 2887th day in office, including a short stint in 2006-07.

Shinzo Abe, who was kicked out of office after just a year in September 2007, has completed a remarkable recovery from illness and adversity to become the longest serving prime minister in Japanese history.

On Wednesday, Mr Abe pulled ahead of Taro Katsura — who served for 2,886 days in the early years of the 20th century — as the nation’s most durable leader. Mr Abe served for a year in 2007 and then continuously since late 2012.  Analysts and rivals say Mr Abe’s run at the top is down to political savvy, structural change in Japanese politics and a healthy dose of luck — allowing the prime minister to survive despite his often mediocre approval ratings.

  “In 2007, I thought there was no way Mr Abe would ever become prime minister again,” said Takao Toshikawa, editor of the political newsletter Tokyo Insideline. Not only was Mr Abe’s first term a failure but he was sick with debilitating ulcerative colitis. 

Strikingly, Mr Abe has overcome his country’s pattern of revolving door premierships as well as the failure of his own first term to give Japan a long period of political stability, even as populist insurgencies have rocked other leading democracies. Since 1989, Japan has had 17 changes of prime minister.  He went into the political wilderness and rebuilt not only his health but his governing philosophy.

Whereas Mr Abe is known as a conservative nationalist, and his first term was marked by dogmatic rightwing policies, he led his Liberal Democratic Party to victory with a much broader agenda focused on reviving Japan’s economy.  “Mr Abe puts in the work and you need to value his effort whether you agree with him or not,” said Mr Toshikawa, pointing to the prime minister’s controversial courtship of US President Donald Trump as an example.  Shinzo Abe, left, greets Donald Trump during a bilateral meeting at Mar-a-Lago © Reuters One reason Mr Abe was able to make a comeback was the failure of the rival Democratic Party of Japan in government from 2009-2012, a period that spanned the recession that followed from the 2008-09 financial crisis, the Fukushima nuclear disaster and constant churn in the prime minister’s office. 

“He’s been incredibly lucky, I think. He’s lucky in that the DPJ basically blew itself up,” said Tobias Harris, author of The Iconoclast, a forthcoming biography of Mr Abe. Since its election defeat in 2012, the DPJ has splintered to the point where there is no rival party capable of defeating the LDP and removing Mr Abe from office. In past periods of LDP dominance, opposition to the leader has come from within the party itself, in the form of organised factions strong enough to dictate the make-up of the cabinet.

Mr Abe, however, has faced little internal opposition. “Put simply, Abe continues because there’s nobody to replace him,” said Shizuka Kamei, a veteran parliamentarian and former minister who retired in 2017 after migrating from Mr Abe’s LDP to various minor parties.  Most of the LDP politicians who are of an age to rival Mr Abe are fellow conservatives and content to be his followers, said Mr Harris. The prime minister has a formidable circle of deputies who have not changed since 2012, including chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga and finance minister Taro Aso. The stability of Mr Abe’s top team is linked to a structural change in Japanese politics: the centralisation of power in the prime minister’s office. Whereas once each ministry was a fiefdom of its own, now the bureaucracy channels its best ideas to the Kantei, as the prime minister’s office is known. Asked recently why the administration has lasted so long, Mr Suga said it was because the government has set policy by “political initiative” and prioritised the economy, rather than deferring to the bureaucracy. 

The prime minister is set to continue through next year’s Tokyo Olympics and some allies float the idea he could even seek another three years as party leader when his current term expires in autumn 2021. If he pushed for it, there is no obvious rival to stop him. For all Mr Abe’s dominance, however, there are questions about his legacy. The economy has performed better since 2012 but the Bank of Japan is far from its 2 per cent inflation target, while the prime minister’s safety-first, economy-focused governance means he has not tried to fulfil his life-long ambition, and change Japan’s pacifist constitution. The lack of opposition, said Mr Harris, has led to “a certain slack in policymaking”. For Mr Abe, the challenge that remains is to leave a legacy worthy of his length of service.

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