Shinzo Abe Gets Fresh Wind in his Sails

This has been a tough summer for Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. His public approval polling numbers took a dive as tens of thousands besieged parliament to protest passage of a pair of security bills allowing Japan to cooperate more fully with allies.

His pet project, bringing the Olympics to Tokyo in 2020, took a hit when he was forced to cancel plans to build a new stadium because of cost overruns. Then the proposed logo was scrapped with accusations of plagiarism.

The start of the Sendai 1 nuclear power plant in southwestern Japan was another sign that he was falling out of step with a public, who oppose the revival of the Japanese nuclear power by 60 percent.

Not surprisingly, the government’s approval ratings in August fell to 38 percent, the lowest in Abe’s administration, though still far higher than most of his immediate predecessor, all of whom resigned about a year in to their term.

But Abe seems to have found a fresh wind in his sails. Earlier this month he was re-elected president of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) without opposition, the first time there has been an uncontested election since 1997.

The party presidency is a perquisite to being prime minister. Given his unassailable majority in both houses of parliament, Abe should be in office until September, 2018. No doubt he would like to stretch it to 2020 so he can preside over the games.

Should the upper house of parliament give final approval to the unpopular security bills, as is expected to happen this week, it would clear the decks of the most important drag on his government’s popularity. Already polls show approval rates climbing.

Abe’s easy victory in the party presidential race shows that he has the LDP firmly in his control. The one candidate who sought to challenge him, Seiko Noda, could not collect enough nominating signatures, and that ceiling is rather low.

There are no worries from the official opposition in parliament. The Democratic Party of Japan has shown no new vigor under its new leader. The Japan Innovation Party, which was the third-largest block in the Diet, is splitting up.

There are some clouds on Abe’s horizon such as the agonizingly slow progress in finalizing the trade agreement known as the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). The issue of imports of automobile imports into the U.S. is the principal hang up.

In July half of the House of Councillors, the upper boy of Japan’s bicameral parliament, will be up for re-election. Abe already has a working majority in that body but he would dearly love to obtain the two-thirds majority need to fulfill his big dream to amend the constitution.

Also rumors persists that the health problems that led to his first resignation a premier in 2007 might be recurring. However, they are mostly anecdotal, and Abe maintains the same frantic pace that he set for himself when he took office for the second time.

For the time being, however, Abe ill likely put aside is favorite nationalistic hobby horses and pivot once again to economic issues, the one area where his policies are popular, even though the fruits of “Abenomics” are still not widely felt.

The prime minister’s staying power has always been based on the perception that he is focused totally on juicing the economy. “From now on it is the economy,” said Abe shortly after his re-election.

He did not specify what policies will get him where he wants to go. Abenomics has always been explained using a samurai metaphor. The first two arrows in his quiver, increasing the money supply and spending on infrastructure, were shot off long ago.

The third arrow, major reforms to the economy have moved at a much slower pace although parliament did approve changes in the labor law to encourage part time workers to get full time jobs and requiring companies to set goals on hiring female executives.

Abe might also turn even more attention to foreign travel. He is already the most widely travelled Japanese premier, having visited more than a quarter of the U.N. member nations since he became premier, averaging two foreign visits per month.

Of course, he would not be the first world leader who enjoyed the pleasures of engaging with various foreign world leaders rather than the nitty-gritty business of domestic affairs.

There are three neighboring counties, however, that he has not set foot in as premier. They are China, South Korea and North Korea. (Of course, only one Japanese premier, Junichiro Koizumi, has ever visited North Korea).

Abe had hoped to obtain an invitation for a trip to Beijing in September but the offer was not forthcoming. If the two leaders do meet any time soon it will be on the sidelines of the opening of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

It would appear that the statement he issued on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II probably did not go far enough to convince China’ leader and South Korea that Japan had truly repented and worthy of a summit.

So if there I to be any summit meeting in northeast Asia in the near future, might actually be with Kim Jong-un, the dictator of North Korea. Abe would dearly love to cap his career by resolving the abductee issue and normalizing ties with the North (the only UN member Tokyo does not officially recognize).

He would also like to be the only Japanese prime minister since Junichiro Koizumi to visit Pyongyang as premier.

“My mission will not end before the day comes when the abduction victims and their relatives are reunited and hold each other,” he said at a meeting with relatives of those thought to still be alive in North Korea.

Tokyo is working quietly through a back channel provided by Mongolia to resolve the issue. Last year Pyongyang agreed to investigate into the whereabouts of abductees and other Japanese citizens belied to be in North Korea, but it has not issued any report.