Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is also leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), reacts as he puts a rosette on the name of a candidate who is expected to win the upper house election, at the LDP headquarters in Tokyo, Japan, July 21, 2019. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
Should Shinzo Abe still be in office by November 20, he will become the longest serving Japanese prime minister of all time © Reuters

Shinzo Abe has survived a collapse in relations with South Korea, the taint of domestic scandals, fizzled economic reforms and multiple golf rounds with Donald Trump to become on Saturday Japan’s longest serving prime minister since the second world war.

Mr Abe’s political longevity, he was prime minister for a year in 2007 and has led for an unbroken run since 2012, stands in stark contrast to Japan’s previous experience of a revolving-door at the top of government and brought a rare stint of stability to the country’s politics.

Since 1989, Japan has had 17 changes of prime minister. Should Mr Abe, an overt nationalist who has successfully concentrated power, still be in office by November 20, he will become the longest serving Japanese prime minister of all time.

Mr Abe’s grip on power puts him ahead of Eisaku Sato, the previous postwar title-holder and his great uncle. Sato won a Nobel Peace Prize, negotiated the return of Okinawa to Japanese rather than US rule, organised the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, helped found the Asian Development Bank and bound Japan to its three non-nuclear principles, which enshrined the non-production, possession or introduction of nuclear weapons.

Mr Abe’s policy successes have seen him achieve approval ratings of more than 45 per cent in recent opinion polls. His achievements include a landmark trade deal with the EU and winning the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

But some say he will struggle to achieve his most cherished wish: reform of Japan’s 1947 pacifist constitution. The document, written by US occupying forces, declared the country would “forever renounce war” and not maintain “land, sea or air forces” — language that conservatives such as Mr Abe have pushed to soften in an attempt to put the country on an equal footing to most countries.

More recently, an escalating spat with South Korea that has seen Seoul end its intelligence-sharing pact with Japan has been a particular blow to Mr Abe’s reputation as a skilful diplomat.

For foreign investors, Mr Abe’s time in power has been mixed. The stock market, as measured by the Topix index is about 90 per cent higher than it was when he took office in December 2012. That rise was propelled both by the promise of major reform and the successful creation of Japan’s first corporate governance code. But the enthusiasm has worn off. The most recent Merrill Lynch survey of global fund managers found they were the most “underweight” towards Japan since Mr Abe took power.

Mr Abe’s premiership has also been tarnished by a pair of scandals. The first concerned a cut-price sale of government land to a nationalistic school to which the prime minister’s wife, Akie, had close ties. That was followed by the disclosure that government officials had doctored documents relating to the incident.

The second blot on his record was the revelation of over a decade of faulty government wage data and suspicions of number-tampering by civil servants.

Jeff Kingston, a professor at Temple University in Tokyo, said those failures appear all the greater when considered against Mr Abe’s parliamentary power — for several years he has commanded a two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament but has only modest legislative achievements to show for it.

“The groundwork required on constitutional revision is convincing the public that it is something that actually needs to be done, but because of the scandals there is a trust deficit — even if people agree with the revision, they don’t want to see it done by him,” he said. “The public don’t embrace [Abe] with gusto, but he’s been blessed with a fractured opposition.”

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