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Asia

PM Abe rides wave of popularity in Japan

Shinzo Abe's first term as Japanese PM ended after just 365 days. But the politician has reinvented himself in his second term and could become one of Japan's most influential leaders in decades, experts say.

When Shinzo Abe left the Prime Minister's official residence in September 2007, he looked a beaten man. He had been ground down by a failure to push through a series of key projects and an inability to fill the large political shoes of his immediate predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi. Dogged by constant in-fighting within the Liberal Democratic Party (LPD), Abe departed citing a debilitating stomach complaint as the main reason for his resignation.

On Thursday, September 25, the one-year anniversary of his election as LDP president, he will be in the United States for talks on global security and economic issues. But the 59-year-old will also be riding high in the opinion polls at home.

The transformation has been remarkable and so complete that political analysts in Japan say this incarnation of Abe could be the most influential Japanese leader in decades and have a similar impact on the domestic political scene as Margaret Thatcher had on Great Britain in the 1980s.

"He has the potential to change Japan just as much as Thatcher did in Britain, but that depends on the LDP allowing him to continue to lead the party in the same way as he has been doing," Steven Reed, a professor at Chuo University who specializes in Japanese political parties and elections, told DW.

Opposition in disarray

Abe is undoubtedly benefitting from an opposition that is in complete disarray, in much the same way as Thatcher's political opponents were fractured in 1983, but the Japanese leader and his party have learned some hard lessons from the three years and three months that they were replaced in government by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (C) inspects the Tokyo Electric Power Company's (TEPCO) emergency operation center inside the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Ota on December 29, 2012. (Photo: Getty Images)

Experts say the Abe and the LPD have learned to pay attention to media coverage

"The main cause for the failure of the last three LDP administrations and the next three DPJ governments was internal disunity," Reed said. "The LDP has rarely in the past been a unified party, but they have been exactly that over the last year, and that's because of the time they spent out of power," he said, adding that there in the recent past there has been much less criticism of the prime minister and his policies from within the party.

The other lesson that Abe and his party have learned is to pay attention to the media - which in other countries would be a given, but something that Japanese politicians have frequently failed to get to grips with. The LDP is today active on social media platforms and is getting better at sensing and reacting to public discontent with policies.

In mid-September, Abe went to the Fukushima nuclear plant and was photographed in protective clothing touring the devastated facility. The media coverage sent out a message that he was taking control of the situation and that the government was listening to the public's concerns.

Abe reinvents himself

Abe's reinvention of himself as head of this administration is all the more impressive given that the political world is one that does not look kindly on failure. Instead of sinking, the politician's public support rate remains firmly at the 60 percent level, virtually unprecedented among recent Japanese leaders.

"You could say he has been lucky - the divided opposition, the recovering economy - but politicians also make their own luck," said Jun Okumura, an international relations analyst with the Eurasia Group.

"Look at Tokyo's bid to host the Olympic Games in 2020; there was some political risk in pushing so hard for that, but it turned out positive for him personally and it will also have a positive impact on the national economy," said Okumura. With firm control over both houses of the Japanese Parliament, Okumura believes Abe will attempt to impose changes in the areas of labor reform, agrarian reform, healthcare and women in the workplace.

"These are things that need to be done and if he is able to achieve half the things that require his attention, then there will be a transformation in Japanese society and Abe will go down as a historical figure," he said.

"But even with that elusive two-house majority, I think it will be difficult to conclude such massive changes." The alternative is smaller-scale tweaks to the system instead of the root-and-branch surgery that is required.

Frustrated on constitution

Most significantly, Okumura believes that Abe will be frustrated in the issue that is closest to his conservative heart: reform of a constitution that nationalists here believe was imposed on Japan by the Allies in the aftermath of World War II.

Any significant change in the constitution would inevitably involve Article 9, which outlaws war as a means to settle international disputes, and the LDP's ally in government - the Buddhist-backed New Komeito Party - would opposes any such campaign.

For the time being, however, Abe appears to be riding the wave of domestic popularity. How long that ride continues will ultimately depend on the domestic economy and party unity.

"If he can hold the party together, then Abe could head the LDP for the next 10 years, something that no other modern Japanese leader has done," Reed said.