On 20 November 2019, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will become the longest-serving prime minister since the position was created. It’s a noteworthy achievement, but it is particularly remarkable given that it was unlikely that Abe would get another chance to lead Japan after he resigned as prime minister in 2007 following a first, disastrous one-year tenure.
Japanese Prime Minister and leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Shinzo Abe raises hand of his party candidate Yoshiro Toyoda for the 21 July Upper House election in Ichikawa, Tokyo on 20 July 2019 (Photo: Reuters/Yoshio Tsunoda/AFLO).
Still, his legacy as a leader remains uncertain.
Throughout his career, Abe has stressed his personal mission — driven by the ideas of his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi — to uproot post-war institutions to strengthen Japan’s ability to cope with the challenges of the post-cold war world. He has never been interested in power for power’s sake, but rather to wield it to overcome long-standing crises and build a strong and prosperous Japan.
Despite his transformational ambitions, Abe’s legacy seems a more of a cautionary tale about the limits of strong leadership in industrial democracies everywhere — particularly in the face of long-term, far-reaching problems. It is not that he has achieved little as prime minister. Abe can point to real and enduring changes delivered by his premiership in every policy area, but these achievements in no way measure up to his ambitions or the promise that his status as Japan’s strongest, most durable prime minister foretold.
Accusations that Abe practices ‘dictatorial politics’ are overblown, but there is little doubt that he is institutionally and politically stronger than any of his predecessors. Institutionally, he has been the beneficiary of more than 30 years of reforms to strengthen Japan’s executive. Abe built upon these reforms after taking office by creating a national security council and a cabinet personnel bureau, giving the prime minister the power to select the highest-ranking bureaucrats across the government.
Politically, he has led the Liberal Democratic Party with fewer institutional sources of dissent and even fewer serious rivals to challenge him for power. The Democratic Party of Japan struggled to regain public trust after being driven from power in 2012 and shattered irreparably in 2017. In these circumstances, Abe has benefited from the public’s desire for political stability and has enjoyed healthy levels of support in opinion polls without interruption. But these sources of strength have not translated into transformational change.
Abe boasts about the positive results of Abenomics — his three-pronged economic program including large-scale monetary easing, fiscal stimulus, and a strategy to develop new sources of long-term growth. The positives include having reversed deflation, one of the longest booms in post-war Japanese history, record-low unemployment, record-high numbers of foreign residents and record-high corporate profits. Yet these policies have not fundamentally altered the outlook for Japan’s demographics, and thus its future economic prospects and international clout.
Pursuing short-term growth will also leave Abe’s successors with a structural deficit set to swell as baby boomers continue to age and the Bank of Japan remains tethered to unconventional policies from which there appears to be no easy escape.
When Abe welcomes athletes and visitors to Tokyo for the Olympics in July 2020, he will do so as the leader of a nation that has become significantly more global during his tenure. Japan has become more welcoming to foreign goods, capital, workers, tourists, and even ideas. His globe-trotting diplomacy has deepened ties with key strategic partners in Asia and Europe.
He has also reinvented Japan from a reluctant participant in trade liberalisation to a leader of the Trans-Pacific Partnership bloc after the United States withdrew in 2017. He has also strengthened bilateral ties with the United States while building a more stable relationship with China — a balancing act that few countries have managed as well during the Trump years.
Abe’s Japan is a more visible regional and global player than before, but his diplomacy has not been an unalloyed success. His vigorous pursuit of a diplomatic settlement with Russia has led to Japanese concessions but no peace treaty or territorial concessions by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Diplomatic overtures to North Korea have gone nowhere and Japan has been sidelined as the United States and South Korea pursue their own talks with Pyongyang. Relations with South Korea may be at their worst since 1945.
Abe has drawn closer to the United States despite signs, under both the Obama and Trump administrations, that Washington may be unwilling to invest in promoting Asian peace, prosperity and stability in the years to come.
While Abe achieved some important political victories, he has struggled to overcome some of the thorniest challenges. He shies away from confronting political, economic, demographic and international issues that are fundamental in determining Japan’s future wealth, power, and influence. He is also unlikely to achieve perhaps his most-cherished political goal, revising Japan’s postwar constitution, particularly after the pro-revision bloc in the upper house lost its supermajority in the 2019 elections.
Abe has been cautious despite his longstanding desire to overturn Japan’s post-war state, adjusting his expectations to what is politically possible rather than what he desires most as a politician.
This leadership style has ensured that he survived long enough to set new endurance records, but it may not be sufficient to stave off Japan’s long-term decline in a rapidly changing Asia.
Tobias Harris is Senior Vice President at Teneo Intelligence and Fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA