Amid multiple scandals and dismal approval ratings, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has finally pulled the trigger on a long-awaited Cabinet reshuffle. With polling pegging his Cabinet at 35 percent (down from 58 percent in February), he hopes this will help shore up support ahead of the likely start of a special Diet session in September and by-elections for the lower house in October. Abe’s ambitious reform agenda could be in jeopardy unless he regains his footing.
The Aug. 3 reshuffle focused on weeding out scandal-tainted and gaffe-prone ministers in favor of reliable veterans from Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). All of the new appointments served in previous Cabinets, and 13 of those served as ministers in the past. Two policy experts have been appointed as the minister of agriculture and the environment minister. Abe referred to the ministerial picks as results-oriented choices. This may mean a new strategy of pursuing solid economic policy wins to boost popularity over time, instead of controversial attempts to establish legacy or short-term populist measures.
Fumio Kishida is now the person to watch. He left his five-year post as foreign minister to take up a position as policy chief in the LDP, putting him at No. 3 in the party behind Abe (who serves as party president) and Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai. Kishida has long been perceived as a credible rival to Abe for the top party post and, by extension, prime minister. He was tapped to succeed Abe in 2021, but the massive LDP losses in the July 2 Tokyo municipal elections appear to have spurred him into earlier action. The long-ruling LDP is organized into competing factions, and Kishida heads up the powerful Kochi Kai group. Abe needs the support of this faction in order to maintain his government's viability and, at least temporarily, defend against internal party challenges. The Cabinet reshuffle raised the number of Kochi Kai-affiliated ministers from two to four, giving the faction control of the defense, education, justice and citizen engagement portfolios.
Abe has said that he will be focusing on substantive economic issues after the reshuffle, instead of focusing singularly on reforming the constitution to allow for Japan’s military renormalization. This could mean progress on labor reform, investment in human resource development and a delay in the consumption tax hike beyond 2020. Whatever Abe's plan is, his approval ratings will need to rise for it to succeed.