Only one year ago, Shinzo Abe was the golden boy of Japanese politics. Young, personable, and outspoken on the potent issue of North Korea, he had the support of Junichiro Koizumi, his charismatic predecessor, and became his party’s obvious choice as leader and prime minister. Now, Mr Abe’s appointment of a new cabinet packed with party elders marks his last chance.
Mr Abe has been wobbling since his Liberal Democratic party lost its upper house majority in elections on July 29. His first cabinet was plagued by gaffes – one minister referred to women as “child-bearing machines”; another suggested that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were inevitable – and damaged by a scandal over pensions administration. Mr Abe’s approval ratings had fallen into the low 20s.
His reconstructed cabinet is full of “veterans”, who may be less prone to embarrassing errors than Mr Abe’s previous team, but who bring their own problems. An overwhelmingly male set of aged establishment figures will do little to boost Mr Abe’s popularity, or his party’s prospects at the polls.
Mr Abe is also sacrificing his own authority to shore up his support within the LDP. Three of Mr Abe’s five special advisers – who were intended to strengthen the prime minister’s office – have gone, while into the cabinet comes Nobutaka Machimura, head of one of the LDP’s largest factions, and Fukushiro Nukaga, another LDP baron.
Broadening his party base may buy Mr Abe time, but unless he analyses why his first cabinet was such a disaster, and why his sky-high approval rating fell so fast, it will not buy him anything more.
Mr Abe’s great theme has been national pride and a normal role for Japan on the world stage, making it easier, for example, to deploy troops on peacekeeping missions. He has met with some success, notably in improving relations with China.
Japan’s citizens, however, have more pressing concerns: five years of economic growth that has not fed through to wages, fears of an impoverished old age, and a globalising economy for which Mr Koizumi seemed to have answers, but Mr Abe only a passing interest.
Mr Abe is strengthened by the lack of an obvious LDP successor, but unless he can engage the public and set out a programme of economic reform that speaks to their concerns, his new cabinet will soon be as unpopular as his first. Japanese politics is changing; the LDP is no longer the unquestioned, all-powerful machine that once it was. Mr Abe needs to show he understands that, and listen to his public, or face crushing defeat at the next election.