The outcome of the Liberal Democratic Party’s leadership election on Sept. 20 must have been a bitter pill to swallow for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose high-handed approach is clearly showing its limits.
Abe has refused to face up to the dire consequences of the way he has wielded his dominant political power. He has suppressed dissenting voices and forced through controversial policy initiatives by using the ruling coalition’s comfortable majorities in both houses of the Diet.
As he prepares for his next three years as the ruling party’s president, Abe should sincerely reflect on his actions and radically change his political approach.
Abe was re-elected for a third term as LDP president by winning nearly 70 percent of the votes, an apparent landslide victory over his sole challenger, former LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba.
Abe did secure 80 percent of the ballots cast by LDP Diet members. But he obtained only 55 percent of the votes representing local card-carrying LDP members and supporters.
The 45 percent of the local votes cast for Ishiba should be considered a rap on Abe’s knuckles.
PUTTING THE SQUEEZE ON ISHIBA SUPPORTERS
During the campaign for the first actual vote to elect the LDP leader in six years–Abe ran uncontested three years ago–both the prime minister and the ruling party showed a marked reluctance to engage in open policy debate.
While Ishiba announced his intention to run in early August, Abe delayed the announcement of his candidacy under the pretext of having to deal with disastrous floods in western Japan.
As a result, no debate between the two candidates was held before the official campaign period began.
And the actual campaign period was effectively shortened to about a week because of the earthquake that struck Hokkaido in early September and Abe’s diplomatic schedule.
While trying to avoid public policy debate as much as possible, the Abe camp put relentless pressure on LDP lawmakers to support the incumbent.
Ken Saito, the minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries who is a member of the LDP faction led by Ishiba, said he had been told by the Abe camp to tender his resignation if he backed the challenger.
In a Facebook post, an LDP local assembly member said he had been openly threatened and intimidated by an LDP legislator who is a senior member of Abe’s team.
Despite his promise to ensure “a presidential election that is marked by dignity and filled with hope,” Abe appears to have done nothing to admonish members of his campaign team for such tactics.
Instead, Abe took action that seemed aimed at suppressing criticism against his campaign, such as demanding that Saito reveal the name of the politician who had put the squeeze on him.
Because of its single-minded drive to garner votes, which led to a lack of meaningful debate on key policy issues, the Abe camp became divorced and alienated from the public.
This was symbolized by Abe’s last campaign speech, delivered in Tokyo’s Akihabara district. Although the speech was made in a public space, the Abe camp ensured he was surrounded only by his supporters to keep a critical audience away.
ABE’S LACK OF REFLECTION
In addition to the administration’s arrogance and unfair use of power, as shown by the political scandals involving Moritomo Gakuen and the Kake Educational Institution, the Abe campaign’s behavior may have affected how local party members and supporters voted. This has important political implications because card-carrying members and supporters are believed to act more in line with public opinion than the LDP Diet members.
The local voting behavior stood in sharp contrast with that of the LDP lawmakers. Five of the seven LDP factions scrambled to support Abe in a blatant attempt to curry favor with the powerful leader.
One of the key lessons from history is that power corrupts.
That makes it all the more important for any powerful, long-ruling government to listen humbly to critical voices and to periodically reflect on its behavior.
Abe seems to have no interest in taking such action.
As he continues governing the nation, Abe should first tackle head-on the issues raised by the Moritomo and Kake scandals, which have yet to be sorted out a year and a half after they came to light.
Public trust in politics and the administrative process is crucial for developing and executing policy.
But Abe tried to obscure the essence of these scandals at the Sept. 20 news conference after he was re-elected.
“It is not easy to erase your image once it has been established,” he said.
These scandals have raised suspicions that people close to Abe have received special treatment. Some bureaucrats went so far as to falsify official documents to cover up inconvenient facts for the prime minister.
The Diet, controlled by the powerful ruling party, has also acted to protect Abe from political fallout from the scandals, thus failing to fulfill its role as the government’s watchdog.
Unless this deplorable situation is corrected, there can be no end to the decline in moral standards in politics and the now notorious “sontaku” practice of bureaucrats and politicians acting to accommodate the assumed wishes and intentions of their boss.
The corrosive effects of these trends could seriously undermine social norms of morality. The problems highlighted by the scandals should not be left unaddressed.
COMMITMENT TO HEEDING PUBLIC VOICES
The Abe administration faces a long list of tough challenges both on the domestic and diplomatic fronts.
One key economic policy challenge is how to spread the benefits of his Abenomics economic policy program to rural areas and small and midsized companies.
Abe referred to an “exit” from the current extremely loose monetary policy. Given that there is no end to deflation in sight, however, it will be difficult for him to start the process of terminating the radical monetary expansion while he is in office.
He also cannot afford to further delay policy efforts to secure a sustainable social security system and restore health in the state finances.
Abe reiterated his wish to amend the Constitution to establish the constitutionality of the Self-Defense Forces, but this is by no means an urgent policy issue that must be tackled immediately.
In an Asahi Shimbun poll in September, only 8 percent of the respondents cited constitutional amendments as a key issue for the LDP presidential election, the lowest rate among six items.
The long-serving Abe administration should focus its political power on policy challenges that are deeply related to people’s lives, such as the aging population and low birthrate, as well as problems with the public pension, health-care and nursing-care insurance programs.
Broad and solid public support is required to tackle these challenges effectively.
If the Abe administration focuses solely on pushing the LDP’s policy agenda, it could cause a serious division within the nation.
Abe needs to change his political style, which has been marked by provocative actions and a hostile stance toward opposition parties.
The prime minister should show he is firmly committed to paying serious attention to public voices.
First of all, he should quickly convene an extraordinary Diet session to announce his determination to respond more sincerely to public concerns and then take concrete steps to correct the harmful effects of his dominant political power.
Unless he can use this electoral victory as an opportunity to mend his ways, Abe will face a harsh voter verdict in the scheduled unified local elections and Upper House poll next year.