In our Fourth-Quarter Forecast we said that Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party was not eager to risk instability and would likely grant Prime Minister Shinzo Abe a third term, allowing him to focus on easing U.S. protectionism, increasing Japan's influence in North Korea negotiations and pushing for constitutional reform at home.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe can breathe a sigh of relief. On Sept. 20, he prevailed over Shigeru Ishiba in the internal Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leadership election. This victory extends his role as both party head and prime minister for three years. Abe won 329 of 402 (82 percent) votes cast by lawmakers and 224 of 405 (55 percent) of votes cast by the party's rank and file — giving him a strong 69 percent of votes overall.
Why It Matters
Given the rebound in his record-low approval ratings earlier in the year, Abe's victory was not unexpected and builds on his party's late-2017 electoral sweep. The result of the LDP vote allows Japan to maintain continuity in leadership at a time when the country is facing numerous foreign policy challenges.
Abe not only secured a large majority of lawmaker votes but also hit his goal of 55 percent of rank-and-file votes, an accomplishment given that Ishiba won the majority of those when the two last went toe-to-toe in 2012. If he completes his term, Abe will become Japan's longest-serving prime minister — particularly noteworthy given that the average length of a prime minister's tenure since 1989 has been under two years. This means he can hold on to the office at least as long as his counterparts in the United States, South Korea and Russia keep their posts.
Regarding foreign policy, Abe will now redouble efforts to leverage his relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump to ease trade pressure from Washington and establish a stronger hand in developments involving North Korea. His victory will also pave the way for a late October visit to China, which could advance Japan's efforts to cooperate in the Belt and Road Initiative.
Abe's big domestic priorities will be to shore up Japan's economy ahead of the 2019 consumption tax hike and to pave the way for constitutional change to legitimize Japan's Self-Defense Force. The second of these goals, which Abe aims to achieve by 2020, will be particularly troublesome given the public's divided sentiments on the matter and the need for support from coalition ally Komeito to pass the change. Also in 2019, there will be upper house elections, which could jeopardize the LDP's supermajority and introduce barriers to Abe's plans.