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Mr Abe’s new team~I

Abe runs the risk of displeasing many LDP members of his own factions who were expecting Cabinet posts and could be potential destabilisers if his popularity ever nosedives. At the time of the reshuffle, Abe’s popularity was not under threat as the LDP scored over others but the future could be uncertain. If Abe’s strategy is just to remain in power and cement his grip over the party, reforming the country could be a casualty

Rajaram Panda | New Delhi |

Following his successful re-election as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party on 20 September ~ for a historic third term~ Mr Shinzo Abe has secured his position as Prime Minister of Japan for three more years. His first task, therefore, was to revamp his Cabinet. While carrying out the task, he was riveted to stability.

Towards that end, he has retained key ministers in the reshuffle while rewarding allies. He retained the pivotal personalities of his administration, which he called the “foundation”, pre-eminently the Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, and Foreign Minister Taro Kono. In his 19-member Cabinet, he inducted 12 new lawmakers who had never held any portfolio before, the highest figure for such individuals during his administration.

These new members belong to party factions whose support had facilitated Abe’s electoral victory. There seems to be one aberration in the reshuffle exercise. Abe has been advocating participation of more women in the workfront and has supported a larger role of women in all spheres of life. However, only one woman, Satsuki Katayama, finds place as regional revitalization and female empowerment minister. This suggests that Abe’s “womenomics” was a casualty because of factionalism in Japanese politics and he has had to admit that women politicians are under-represented in the new Cabinet. This explains why Katayama is the sole woman and the Cabinet showcases the lowest female representation since he returned to power in December 2012.

Abe reposes high hopes on high-profile lawmaker Katayama, though. Abe has reorganized the lineup of executive members of the LDP. As the LDP gears up for the key Upper House elections next summer, the main focus will be on the Constitution amendment proposal so that the status of the Self-Defense Forces can be formalized. He has gravitated heavily towards his longtime allies and friends in his exercise relating to the party’s executive posts. The new faces in the Cabinet include senior lawmakers belonging to each faction, which demonstrates that Abe has rewarded them for their support in the September election.

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This has been done even at the expense of experience and competence. This included Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya, Education Minister Masahiko Shibayama, and Mitsuhiro Miyakoshi, minister in charge of Abe’s “dynamic engagement of all citizens” policy. Even without adequate experience, Abe hoped that the new recruits shall capitalize on their long political career in honing their expertise and thus contribute to make the Cabinet a group of professionals.

Four ministers hail from the faction led by Aso, three each from the pro-Abe factions, namely headed by Hiroyuki Hosoda, LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai and LDP policy chief Fumio Kishida. An interesting feature is that despite the fact that former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba had challenged Abe in the election, the Prime Minister has included one lawmaker from Ishiba’s faction in his Cabinet, third-term lawmaker Takashi Yamashita as the new Justice Minister, replacing Yoko Kamikawa, one of the two woman ministers from the last Cabinet. Another noted omission from the list was Shinjiro Koizumi, son of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

This could be because the junior Koizumi had strongly criticized Abe over his allegations of cronyism and has voted for Ishiba in the election and therefore lost a berth in the reshuffled Cabinet. Other prominent lawmakers chosen or retained for important party posts were Nikai and Kishida. Also included is the former health minister Katsunobu Kato, who was appointed chairman of the decision-making General Council in place of Wataru Takeshita, who supported Ishiba in the race. Akira Amari, a former economic revitalization minister, was “reinstated” to the administration’s inner sanctum by being named chairman of the LDP Election Strategy Committee, one of the party’s four key posts.

The roles of both Kato and Amari could be crucial in strengthening Abe’s grip on the party. In particular, Kato’s role is going to be very important because as the General Council Chairman, he shall preside over the party’s key internal discussions over the constitutional amendment in the coming months. Abe’s ultimate objective is to revise Article 9 of the Constitution and therefore he seeks consensus on how to revise the national charter, which remains untouched since its adoption more than 70 years ago. Kato has to ensure that the party and its allies are all on board on the issue of amending the Constitution before the proposal is placed before the extraordinary session that is expected to run through mid-December. This issue still remains tricky as a consensus is yet to emerge.

Kato’s challenge is going to be more forbidding than expected as Abe expects him to build consensus on this issue. The reshuffle also followed what is called in Japan “Cabinet post waiting list” (Nyukaku taiki gumi), a concept in vogue in the 1970s, which means the Prime Minister arbitrarily distributed Cabinet positions among members of influential intraparty factions, and this is reflected in Abe’s portfolio allocation. If this is the basis of portfolio distribution reminiscent of the pattern that was followed in the 1970s, then Abe’s capacity to tackle critical issues such as the graying population, growing government debt and a shaky public social security system could face scrutiny.

Katsuyuki Yakushiji, professor of political science at Toyo University observes: “It appears Cabinet posts have been automatically distributed based on whose turn it is.” The fact that 12 of the 19 Cabinet members were handed over berths for the first time, the largest ever for an Abe Cabinet, testifies to the reality. Most of the new ministers had been effectively “foreordained” for the posts by their faction leaders. The new Cabinet seems reminiscent of Abe’s first Cabinet in 2006 after winning a landslide in the party presidential election. At that time, he had allotted several Cabinet posts to those who supported him during the campaign.

Soon, four of his ministers were hit by scandals and forced to resign, critically weakening Abe’s first administration, which ended after less than a year with his own resignation. This time around, Abe runs the risk of displeasing many LDP members of his own factions who were expecting Cabinet posts and could be potential destabilisers if his popularity ever nosedives. At the time of the reshuffle, Abe’s popularity was not under threat as the LDP scored over others but the future could be uncertain. If Abe’s strategy is just to remain in power and cement his grip over the party, reforming the country could be a casualty.

(To be continued)

The writer, till recently ICCR Chair Visiting Professor at Reitaku University, Japan, is currently Lok Sabha Research Fellow, Parliament