Prime Minister Shinzo Abe should be entering August confident in his ability to win a third term as president of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). He is supported by 76 percent of LDP members polled and has secured commitments from enough of the LDP’s factions to give him a commanding lead over his challenger, Shigeru Ishiba. While Ishiba’s candidacy will ensure that Abe does not coast to a new term uncontested as he did in 2015, former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida’s announcement that he will back Abe in the September election has eliminated the possibility of the only factional coalition that had a shot at ousting Abe. Barring a major political shock between now and next month, the stars are aligned for Abe to continue as LDP president and prime minister into an historic third term.
Much attention has been paid to this leadership race – but what does the political landscape look like following the LDP presidential election? What sort of policy agenda will Abe pursue in his extended tenure as prime minister? What are the lingering questions and things to watch for in the coming months? This article answers those questions in three parts, beginning with the political calendar.
Part I: The Political Calendar
The next LDP presidential term starts with a packed political calendar that includes two major elections and an event that has happened only a handful of times in Japan’s millennia-long history. The things already scheduled for the next few years will be the principal factors shaping Abe’s third term as LDP president. The list below is not exhaustive, but the items included represent the major events that will take place, with extra focus on the critical year of 2019.
By the time the September LDP presidential election is done, over a year will have passed since the last cabinet reshuffle in early in August 2017. Abe will find himself in a far different position than last year when he shuffled his cabinet to recover from a steep dive in public opinion following the South Sudan logs scandals, the Moritomo Scandal, and the Kake school scandal. A cabinet reshuffle serves three objectives: repay debts, punish challengers, and build-up potential successors. With Hiroyuki Hosoda, Taro Aso, and Toshihiro Nikai throwing their weight behind Abe early, they can expect some reward for their allegiance. Meanwhile, by deciding to side with Abe rather than ally with Ishiba, Fumio Kishida eliminated Abe’s nightmare scenario for September (a Kishida-Takeshita-Ishiba alliance). He will have bartered for some key postings, though the most important outcome for his future prime ministerial prospects will be where he himself moves next. Finally, factional favors and debts will also be weighed with the priority of placing House of Councillors members into prominent Cabinet postings to boost their reelection chances in summer 2019.
The timing of a reshuffle is always kept closely guarded, but it should occur sometime between the completion of the LDP presidential election and the next session of the Diet.
Extraordinary Session (~October to December 2018)
The ruling LDP and Komeito coalition will have to decide whether to convene an extraordinary session of the Diet this year. These typically open sometime in October and end late November or early December. Discussion on the Moritomo and Kake school scandals disrupted the legislative calendar for the ordinary session that ended in late July, so there will likely be some lower level agenda items that the two parties want to address before year’s end.
Ordinary Session of the Diet (January to June 2019)
The first three months of the ordinary session will focus on passing the proposed record-setting budget. Two key elections in April and July will influence the remaining legislative agenda, with the LDP and Komeito seeking to avoid controversial legislation at the risk of harming public opinion. The topic likely to capture the most public attention in the Diet is the scheduled consumption tax hike and measures to minimize its impact on the average Japanese resident.
Unified Prefectural & Municipal Elections (April 2019)
During the immediate postwar period, government officials conceived that all prefectural and municipal elections (including governors, mayors, and assemblypersons) in Japan would occur every four years in April (in what is called the toitsu chiho senkyo). Since the first unified election in 1947, natural disasters and other extenuating circumstances have changed the election schedules for many prefectures and municipalities, but the April unified elections still see 10 governor’s billets and around 1,000 mayoral and assembly seats contested at the prefectural and municipal levels nationwide. The LDP will be focused on maintaining its power base across the country, and public support for the Abe administration and the party will be a driving force. Both Abe and the members of the ruling coalition will seek to avoid controversial cabinet decisions or legislation in the lead-up to these elections.
Imperial Abdication & Succession (29 April – 1 May 2019)
The abdication of the Heisei emperor and ascension of Crown Prince Naruhito scheduled for Golden Week 2019 is a major event; after all, it is the first abdication since Emperor Kokaku in 1817 and will usher in the first era change since 1989. The government will be deciding upon a new era name, updating all its systems to reflect changes in record-keeping, and coordinating a massive public event with international attention. Prime Minister Abe has already established a special office inside the Cabinet Secretariat to handle the imperial succession. His administration is also looking to establish a committee headed by the Prime Minister as well as a task force run by the Chief Cabinet Secretary. This event will invariably influence the legislative agenda for the ordinary session of the Diet, Abe’s personal schedule and priorities for spring 2019, and public opinion ahead of the House of Councillors election in the summer. It could even potentially impact on the possibility of a bid for constitutional amendment should Emperor Akihito decide to express any disapproval of it following his abdication.
G-20 Summit, Osaka (28-29 June 2019)
The G-20 set to take place in Osaka in June 2019 carries special significance, though not necessarily for the content of the conference itself. First and foremost is the level of attention the event will garner immediately before the House of Councillors election. This is the first time that Japan has hosted the G-20, and unlike the G-7s which are historically held in remote locations, this event is happening in Japan’s third largest city. The successes or failures of the G-20 will color public perceptions of the Abe administration entering the campaign period. Second, the level of government attention necessary for hosting an event like this will affect the administration’s agenda. It will need to manage the major security requirements, the separate ministerial meetings held in other areas of Japan, support for bi- or multi-lateral summits on the sidelines, and the conference activities themselves. Third, Abe and members of his cabinet will have at least a few sideline summits dealing with administration priorities such as trade agreements, North Korea, and the Northern Territories. Finally, the lessons learned from this event will influence government priorities in preparation for other major international events held in Japan, including the Rugby World Cup and 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
House of Councillors Election (Summer 2019)
While the exact date is not yet set, the next House of Councillors election will take place in or around July 2019. Half of the seats will be up for grabs, as well as three of the six DP-Party of Hope debacle last October.
Rugby World Cup (September – November 2019)
The World Cup is nowhere comparable in size or scale to the Olympics, but the event will have political implications since it will serve as a de facto test-run for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The successes or failures of hosting this event will influence public perception of preparedness for the Olympics. That will in turn drive the level of central government intervention in overall management of the bigger sporting event.
Consumption Tax Hike (October 2019)
The Abe administration has promised to increase the consumption tax from 8 percent to 10 percent in October 2019. However, Abe delayed this tax hike once and will be pressed to consider another delay. With the scheduled tax hike set to happen so soon after the House of Councillors election, it will no doubt become an election issue. The LDP will have to decide on the tax rise prior to the summer, with direct political and economic impacts. The decision will not come lightly and will be a source of intra- and inter-party debate.
2020 Olympics (July – August 2020)
In some ways, Abe’s tenure as prime minister has been linked to the Tokyo Olympics. Abe was in Argentina in September 2013 when the International Olympic Committee selected Tokyo over Istanbul and Madrid. He set the stage for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics when he emerged at the handover ceremony dressed as Super Mario in Rio in August 2016, and he is set to earn the title of longest consecutively serving postwar prime minister shortly after the Tokyo Olympics are scheduled to end. Abe has already taken steps towards direct management of the Olympics by establishing a Minister in Charge of the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games. Although his personal involvement in this effort to date has been limited, this may change depending on public sentiments leading up to the event.
End of LDP Presidential & House of Representatives Terms (September & October 2021)
The snap election in October 2017 reset the clock for the House of Representatives until October 2021. However, three factors will guarantee that timing of the next Lower House election will come sooner: first, Prime Minister Abe’s third term as LDP president ends in September; second, the LDP has only let the term limit expire once since 1955; and third, a transition of power between prime ministers without an election is generally viewed unfavorably in Japan. As such, the timing of the Lower House election will likely coincide with a pre-determined transition of power from Abe to his successor.
Part II of this article will cover Shinzo Abe’s policy agenda for a third term as Party President.
*This article, originally published on August 2, has been updated to include discussion of the 2019 G20 Summit
Michael Bosack is a Ph.D. Candidate at the International University of Japan's Graduate School of International Relations. Previously, he was the Deputy Chief of Government Relations at Headquarters, U.S. Forces, Japan, where he was part of the team that drafted and implemented the 2015 Guidelines for U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation. Michael is a graduated Mansfield Fellow and military veteran with two tours to Afghanistan.