Japanese prime ministers come and go. Shinzo Abe, Japan’s current prime minister, is the 11th in 15 years. A succession of short lived governments and constant gridlock in parliament has placed Japanese politics in a state of paralysis and instability. This is not unfamiliar to Mr. Abe. He experienced the country’s political instability first-hand during his first term as prime minister in 2006-2007, when he crashed out of office following a series of scandals. However, Mr. Abe may have learned from his mistakes. Three months into office, the PM is enjoying unusually high approval ratings: around 70 percent support him. Much of his newly won approval has sprung from his determination to get Japan out of its infamous “lost decade”. Will this premier be able to overcome Japan’s political instability – or end up leaving through its revolving door once again?
Unfortunately for Mr. Abe, Japan’s political instability runs deep. Only one parliament has survived an entire term since the Second World War, and governments rarely last longer than two years. Early resignations of prime ministers have been occurring for some time, and stepping down seems to have become expected of politicians following low approval ratings. Although there is no consensus on what the root cause is, many different factors seem to play a part in the instability.
For instance, the Japanese parliament (or Diet) has two houses with a relatively even distribution of power, and they are elected at different times. It is therefore not uncommon that the upper and lower houses of parliament are controlled by opposing parties. This can paralyse the government and make reforms difficult to pass. And impotent governments may be expected to resign.
Pressure can also be mounted from within. Mr. Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, as well as most other Japanese political parties, is divided into several factions. The factions have a history of coming into conflict over power, and seem to harbor few qualms about toppling the government when it’s in their interest.
So far, Mr. Abe has managed to avoid this and keep public opinion on his side. Many of his reforms are popular at home and praised abroad. The prime minister’s economic policies, popularly called “Abenomics”, aim to stimulate the economy while depreciating the Yen, increasing the competitiveness of exports. As part of his plan to kick-start the Japanese economy, he has forced a change in the leadership of the country’s central bank. The cautious former head has been replaced by Haruhiko Kuroda, an outspoken critic of previous monetary policies who has pledged to do “whatever it takes” to fight Japan’s deflation.
Additionally, Mr. Abe has set Japan on a course towards a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with the US, which would open up trade between the two countries and hopefully boost the economy. However, he faces staunch resistance from powerful Japanese interest groups. One of which is Japan’s farmers, who constitute an important base of support for Abe’s party. But a continued pursuit of a free-trade agreement would show the electorate that he is sincere about tackling Japan’s structural problems.
The prime minister’s popularity will be put to a test in the upcoming upper house elections, which are to be held in June this year. Pundits predict that the prime minister will be able to keep public opinion on his side if he manages to reassure voters that the economy remains his highest priority. This means that Mr. Abe, a hard-line nationalist, will have to shelf many reforms which lie close to his heart. For instance, the PM has made no secret of his wish to revise the American-imposed constitutional clause that commits Japan to pacifism. However, many worry that he might once again turn to unpopular nationalist policies if he manages to claim the upper house and further consolidate his power.
So where does this leave Mr. Abe? Political analysts say that it is too early to tell whether the prime minister will be able to stay on and make any lasting impact. While he currently enjoys popular support, Japanese politics is unpredictable, and he has not yet been able to reform many of the structures at the root of the country’s political instability. Such reforms would likely take some time. Until then, he will have to tread lightly.