abe's strategy to accumulate enough power to push through his reforms shows first effects
a few weeks back, the abe administration had cause to celebrate: 500 days in office; astonishingly long for a japanese prime minister. one reason for his surprisingly long breath is a level of power concentration in the hands of the prime minister rarely seen before.
so far, japan’s prime ministers were more similar to a firefly than a leviathan. For a few months, or if things went exceptionally well, one year, they were glimmering brightly, only to fade away all the faster. japan has seen 35 prime ministers since 1945 – seven of those since 2006, when junichiro koizumi, one of the more long-lived leaders, made way for abe’s first term.
the early expiry date of the prime minister’s office in japan is not simply an issue of leadership capability, however, but can be traced back first and foremost to institutional hurdles that keep the leader from exerting leadership. rather than constitutional obstacles it is political limitations that cause the office of the prime minister to be that ephemeral: the electoral system with its big block parties, the de-politicized bureaucracy, and the cabinet ministers’ cacophony.
now in his second go at the highest office, abe is tackling all these institutional hurdles and is centralizing power in his hands on a level rarely seen before. to what end he does not even know himself, it seems.
one significant reason behind the relative weakness of the prime minister’s office in japan is the party system that created big parties that then subdivided into factions (whereby the faultlines between those factions did not run along ideological or political differences, but were mainly about the distribution of offices). every leader of a big faction was to have a go at the top post and in order to allow each of them a year or so in the prime minister’s office before the next generation pushed them into retirement, they brokered complicated rotations – with the result that a four year term saw not one, but about four prime ministers.
constitutionally, the japanese prime minister is in a relatively weak role as well. his position in the cabinet is simply described as the primus inter pares and all too often do the various ministers dance to their own tunes, utterly ignoring the conductor. abe knows all this just too well, since this cacophony lost him his office in 2007, after just one year as prime minister.
and then there’s the fifth power in the japanese state, the bureaucracy. in contrast to the united states, for instance, where every change in the presidency is causing about one thousand top-officials to rotate in and out of office, in japan only about forty men and women have to make way for officials being brought in by the new prime minister. for the biggest part, politically motivated appointments are taboo, leading to a high degree of continuity and, thus, bureaucratic influence; after all, a japanese bureaucrat will see more (prime) ministers come and go during her career than anywhere else.
leaving aside the question of how good or bad this model is, it does lead to a system in which every prime minister is confronted with a rebelliously-minded cabinet, strong opposition within his own party (not so much from other parties), and a powerful bureaucracy. that makes it difficult to implement one’s visions, particularly when it comes down to major reforms – another reason why japan’s prime ministers disappear so relatively quickly; their popularity fades away fast and a honeymoon period of a hundred days for a new administration is a distant dream for japanese politicians.
abe is now tackling all of his office’s institutional weaknesses simultaneously
prime minister abe will not succeed in completely eradicating his cabinet’s cacophony – after all, he is still surrounded by a bunch of mentally questionable characters, to say the least. he had to pander to their factions and he will have to continue doing so. but with his chief cabinet secretary yoshihide suga, abe chose an able captain who is running a tight ship. despite some recent mental diarrhea of some fruit loops to abe’s right (and hence unbelievably far right), abe 2.0 is a far cry from his first, diffuse cabinet. nowhere does this become any clearer than in the humble pies that all those who committed a blunder were forced to eat. the latest example is seiichi eto, an adviser to the prime minister, who was forced to withdraw his comments on the u.s. discontent with abe’s yasukuni shrine visit. abe is also clamping down on resistance in his own camp by various other means, such as excluding a minister who was opposing his plans for deregulation from the preparatory talks on japan’s new special economic zones.
clearly, prime minister abe is no longer primus inter pares, but simply primus.
another component in abe’s strategy is the ever-greater concentration of executive power in the kantei, as the prime minister’s office is known. with the recent creation of the national security council, the prime minister has forced all actors with foreign and security portfolios under the kantei’s roof and made certain that he sits in the captain’s chair. this logic increasingly also applies to other policy domains. should casinos be legalized, for instance, then supervising gambling will not be the responsibility of one of the ministries that are now overseeing various forms of legal gambling activities, but will also be located within the kantei.
the many advisory panels created by the prime minister are part of this as well, such as the industrial competitiveness council, the council on economic and fiscal policy, or the advisory panel on the reconstruction of the legal basis for security. these deliberative bodies serve two main purposes. for one, they diminish the influence of the bureaucracy on the policy-making process as an alternative source of ideas and proposals. first and foremost, however, these expert bodies are meant to lend credibility to abe’s planned political moves (the eventual recommendations of the panels are quite clear from the very beginning) and to strengthen his back, particularly with regards to his intra-party opposition; after all, abe does not have an own faction in the ruling party, the LDP.
the fiercest lash of the whip, however, is aimed at the bureaucracy. in a first step to curb officials’ powers, prime minister abe appointed one of his political allies, ichiro komatsu, as head of the cabinet legislation bureau and thus broke with the tradition that this post is to be staffed from independent experts coming from within the bureau – since the role of this bureau is similar to that of a constitutional court that watches over the interpretation of the constitution where the actual constitutional court does not want to wager onto too politicized ground. komatsu is now in a powerful position, however, to aid abe’s plans to alter the interpretation of the war-renouncing article 9 of the Japanese constitution.
in a further step on may 27, the abe government installed a personnel bureau with an eye to centralizing the appointment of bureaucratic top officials. the bureau is to be headed by abe’s close political ally katsunobu kato and, of course, also located in the kantei. it will oversee the appointment of about six hundred officials to the higher echelons of government service, an unprecedentedly high number, down to the department head level that used to be almost free from political appointments. prime minister abe will hold bureaucrats on a shorter leash than any other prime minister. true, as observed in my last entry, he is handing much power to METI (ministry of economy, trade and industry) which he charged with lending substance to his ambitious reforms, but only so that they will do as he bid them to do; the potential of officials to go against the prime minister's will, however, has decreased substantially with abe's reforms.
abe has accumulated a lot of political capital, his popularity ratings after one year in office are still rivaling those of koizumi, he is holding his ministers on a very short leash, and he is centralizing executive power in the kantei on an unprecedented level.
the most important question, however, remains unanswered: to what end? abe has accumulated a lot of political capital, but he is still unwilling to spend it, whilst his attention is wavering between abenomics and policies of national self-adulation. and even abe has not amassed enough political capital to fight on two difficult fronts at the same time: he has finally loosed his third arrow of structural reforms last week as well as simultaneously securing a broad understanding with his highly skeptical coalition partner on the reinterpretation of the constitution. but the danger remains that he exasperates himself in his attempt to turn japan into a ‘normal’ country and is left without enough political capital nor energy to push through his programme of abenomics against powerful vested interests and lobby groups. only if he directs all his attention and energy towards the economy, however, does his third arrow have the tailwind necessary to hit the mark. the most recent signs seem promising.