By Kai Abe McGuire —
Last week, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced his new cabinet in an “attempt to regain the trust of the people.” In the larger context of Japanese politics, a cabinet reshuffle is nothing extraordinary occurring roughly once a year in August. Eisaku Sato, who served as prime minister during the late 1960s and early 1970s, famously reshuffled his cabinet a record six times and appointed over 100 different ministers throughout his seven and a half years in office. Abe has reshuffled his cabinet twice since he returned to power in 2012 and this reshuffle was planned well in advance of the summer.
However, this month’s reshuffle took on a particular urgency for Abe. The prime minister has seen his public support – which was well above 60 percent at the beginning of the year – plunge to under 30 percent due to political scandals and accusations of favoritism.
Despite being one of the longest-serving prime ministers in recent Japanese history and having enjoyed a wealth of political capital for most of his tenure, Abe’s decline in public support puts him in a difficult position. His weak polling numbers threaten his policy agenda and hopeful successors are already lining up in anticipation of a post-Abe administration.
In response, Prime Minister Abe has seized on the opportunity to reshuffle his cabinet and is banking on the major personnel shakeup to redeem his administration in the eyes of the public.
The reshuffle was an effort to accomplish two primary goals: bring in an experienced cadre of lawmakers to stabilize the government and prevent further turmoil within the party; and satisfy the demands of competing factions within the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) by projecting an image of inclusivity and political diversity to ultimately rally party unity.
Experience and Stability
Abe appointed mostly experienced lawmakers upon whom he can depend to advance his agenda. He kept staple figures of his administration such as Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Hiroshige Seko. The 5 retained ministers are all significant assets to Abe as he continues to pursue various policy goals such as “Abenomics,” his economic revitalization plan.
Of the 19 total ministers, only six are taking cabinet positions for the first time. This is the fewest number of new ministers appointed in any of Abe’s cabinet reshuffles since 2012. This is not to say, however, that these six are actually newcomers. All but one – Masaharu Nakagawa, the new Minister of the Environment (MOE) – have held at least a second-in-command State Minister position at a ministry, and even Nakagawa has held relatively prestigious government and party positions. Overall, the new cabinet features significant legislative and ministerial experience.
It appears that Abe has chosen relatively safe bets to recover from the various scandals that have recently plagued his administration. Former Minister of Defense Inada Tomomi made several gaffes during her short tenure and resigned just prior to the cabinet reshuffle. The Kake Gakuen scandal became a major problem for Abe as he was accused of favoritism, forcing him to testify in the Diet. The new cabinet line-up therefore appears to show stability and competence as Abe tries to recover from this downturn in his popularity.
Deference to Party Factions
Factions have been an integral part of LDP politics and are useful tools to study the balance of political power in Japan. Abe has previously favored members of his inner circle to impose discipline and advance his policy agenda, but in the face of a sudden decrease in approval ratings, he has had to expand the tent this time around. In addition to projecting experience, Abe’s new cabinet also showed deference to other party factions to create an image of inclusiveness and political diversity. Moreover, Abe not only appointed members of differing factions but also covered different ends of the political spectrum within the LDP, projecting openness to constructive criticism.
Of the 6 LDP factions represented in this cabinet, the Kishida faction – led by Fumio Kishida, former minister of foreign affairs– has a particularly strong presence, with 4 total members. In order to secure the Kishida faction’s cooperation for his policy goals, Abe appointed more ministers from that faction than any other. In addition, Kishida himself is keen on building support to increase his viability as a possible successor to Abe – hence his desire to capture top cabinet posts for his faction and his own influential party post, namely chairman of the LDP Policy Research Council.
Another faction that had a strong showing was the Ishiba faction, albeit for slightly different reasons. Ishiba Shigeru, an outspoken critic of Abe within the LDP who lost the LDP presidential race to Abe in 2012, is also vying to be Abe’s successor. A Nikkei Shimbun poll from earlier this week revealed that 22 percent of respondents favored Ishiba as the leader of the next administration, while Abe trailed with 17 percent and Kishida at 9 percent. Abe’s motive for appointing individuals close to Ishiba is unclear, and therefore any analysis is necessarily speculative. What is notable, however, is that these individuals have risen relatively quickly to prominent positions despite the faction being less than two years old and Ishiba’s outspoken criticism of Abe.
Finally, the appointment of four ministers who are not aligned with any faction at all symbolizes Abe’s attempt to rally unity within the party. Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications Seiko Noda is a prime example of the administration attempting to appease members along the political spectrum within the LDP. Despite emphasizing that she is not feuding with the prime minister but simply has differing ideas on how best to govern, Noda has been an ardent critic of Abe in the past, even running against him in the 2015 LDP presidential election until pulling out the day votes were cast. Abe stated in a TV interview this week that he specifically appointed Noda because of the frank relationship they share in which both discuss their differing opinions honestly with one another. By portraying openness to constructive criticism, Abe hopes to improve the optics of his administration. However, rallying party unity will prove to be more complicated than simply signaling to LDP colleagues that the administration is listening; on the same day immediately following her cabinet appointment, Noda announced her intention to run for head of the party and therefore the premiership in 2018, further fueling speculation as to what a post-Abe administration might look like.
An initial post-reshuffle public opinion poll appears to indicate that the shakeup was a net positive for the Prime Minister. While a jump from under 3 percent to the mid-30 percent range may not be a roaring resurgence for Abe, his efforts to appeal to the public will be crucial as he continues to work toward accomplishing his agenda. However, with the LDP presidential race about a year away and viable figures like Noda publicly announcing their candidacies, Abe will have to engineer a short turnaround in public opinion in order to retain the premiership beyond next summer. Abe’s reshuffling was designed to reinforce his administration with experienced and credibility-granting figures, as well as appease different factions in an effort to rally party unity. The short timeframe will pressure Abe’s administration to accomplish as much as possible, but his success will ultimately be up to the Japanese public.