Cabinet reshuffles are a big deal in Japanese politics. Where in other nations a reshuffle is generally of interest only to those with skin in the game and those desperately afflicted with a fascination with politics (it’s no way for a person to live, I assure you), in Japan reshuffles are given enormous attention and seen as key milestones in a government’s tenure. This is understandable when you look at the history of Japanese democracy in the post-war era; the Liberal Democratic Party has ruled, with or without the support of a minor coalition party, for around 56 of the past 60 years. When every election returns the same party to government, merely expanding or reducing its majority, the only real vehicle for reform lies in cabinet reshuffles – whose outcome has traditionally been determined by the jockeying for position between the LDP’s various internal factions. The hegemony of the LDP has made reshuffles more politically important than the majority of elections.
This makes reshuffles into a powerful tool for a prime minister; as well as providing a means to placate, reward or punish party factions for their support (or lack of same), the reshuffle has also traditionally been a magic bullet for the all-important cabinet approval rating. Cabinet approval is the public opinion figure which every prime minister must watch with anxious eyes; when it drops below a certain level, conventional wisdom suggests that the prime minister is now an electoral liability to the LDP and should be replaced, making him vulnerable to challenges from within the party. A reshuffle is a shot in the arm for cabinet approval – voters generally seem willing to give a new cabinet time to prove itself, so the approval rating shoots up after a reshuffle.
Abe Shinzo, the current prime minister, has lived a charmed life in terms of his cabinet approval ratings thus far. Indeed, his approval rating is a conundrum that puzles many commentators on Japan. Abe’s rule has boiled down to a succession of deeply unpopular measures – last year’s 秘密保護法 (Official Secrets Bill) and this year’s 安保法 (Security Bill) provoked major ongoing demonstrations around the country, while the slow-but-sure restarting of nuclear power plants continues to be opposed by a significant majority of voters and provokes headline-grabbing local protest with each restart. Meanwhile the much-vaunted “Abenomics” economic programme has had a mixed reaction from economists (it’s largely only managed to crank the levers of monetary stimulus, and has failed miserably to provide the kind of economic reform originally promised), and definitely a failing grade from voters, many of whom have seen their real incomes drop precipitously in recent years and almost none of whom say they have felt any benefit from Abenomics. In poll after poll, the Japanese people hate the Abe cabinet’s policies – they don’t like the bills it passes, don’t support its broad agenda on security and energy, and don’t feel any benefit from its economic policy. Yet in the same polls, they continue to support the cabinet, and the LDP, at a remarkably high rate.
This is only a puzzle if you consider the government in isolation; look at it in the context of Japan’s opposition parties, and it makes perfect sense. To describe the opposition as a disaster would be far too kind; the opposition is a miserable, useless catastrophe. The Democratic Party of Japan, the main party of opposition, has no coherent policy platform and almost zero visibility on key issues; other parties such as the Japan Innovation Party are consumed with in-fighting, and opposition parties split, merge and split again with a weary regularity that makes it perfectly apparent that their membership are far more concerned with shuffling for position and status in a tiresome game of musical chairs for avaricious old men, than in actually representing a constituency or, god forbid, a coherent ideology. Even as the government faced widespread resistance from the populace in passing legislation like the Security Bill, the main opposition parties were distracted with the side-show, the cat-herding pipe-dream, of assembling a broad opposition alliance. It was once said (by one of his own backbenchers, no less) of the well-meaning but slightly hapless Irish opposition leader Alan Dukes, “if it was raining soup, the man would be out in the street with a fork”; it rained miso soup for Japan’s opposition in recent months, and they all ran out into the streets holding chopsticks. If the Japanese electorate dislike Abe Shinzo’s policy platform, they despise the opposition, and have supported the Abe cabinet largely on the basis that any alternative to the LDP is, at the moment, nigh-on unthinkable.
Even so, the Abe cabinet’s approval rating sank to a low (albeit still far higher than justified by support for its policies) ebb when the Security Bill was passed, so; quick! Pull the reshuffle lever! Out with the old, in with the new, and back in with some of the old. There are new faces in some quite prominent positions (I plan to write a little later this week about former pro wrestler Hase Hiroshi’s appointment as Education Minister, which is already shaping up to be very interesting), some hints about which factions are in Abe’s good books, and lots of speculation about what it all means for the theory that he’s going to anoint fanatical right-winger and historical revisionist Inada Tomomi as his successor; she would be Japan’s first female prime minister, marking a real “two steps forward, three steps back” for the progressive cause. The conclusion of most commentators, incidentally, is that leaving her in charge of the LDP’s Policy Research Council, rather than promoting her to a more public cabinet position, suggests that she’s not the shoo-in for the succession many had assumed.
The lever duly pulled, the new Abe Cabinet (“Abe 2.2”, perhaps, as it’s the second cabinet of his second run at the prime minister’s job) sat back and waited for the approval bump… Which never came. Approval did rebound slightly from the level it hit after the security bill passed, but even in the most optimistic of polls, this looked like a dead cat bounce – the natural rebound when even the most moribund of objects hits a hard floor – rather than a boost from the reshuffle. In approval terms, at least, the reshuffle has been a total write-off; perhaps reflecting the increasingly presidential style of Japanese prime ministers since Koizumi Junichiro in the early 2000s, public attention seems focused on Abe himself, and cabinet approval rating is inexorably tied to his person, regardless of the cabinet with which he surrounds himself.
This is troubling for Abe, who has managed – largely off the back of the weakness and disarray both of the opposition and of the much-diminished LDP internal factions – to stay in power for almost three years, far longer than most Japanese Prime Ministers of recent decades. It seemingly removes from him one of the key weapons in the Prime Minister’s arsenal, rendering the reshuffle useless for juicing public opinion numbers – though of course, it may simply be that this reshuffle was handled incompetently, being carried out while the public was still angry over the passage of the Security Bill, and thus burdening the new cabinet with that anger rather than giving them a fresh start. On the other hand, it also reinforces the importance of Abe Shinzo himself, suggesting that while Prime Ministers may still fall victim to weak cabinet support ratings, the era of the disposable and nigh-on faceless Japanese Prime Minister (honestly, even political science academics here struggle to recall some of the nobodies who have held the office in recent decades) is over. Abe will be toppled only when someone within the LDP is strong, prominent and supported enough to topple him; the old system, in which a Prime Minister could be deposed by a broad group of plotting factions without a figurehead, and replaced with whatever doddering codger they felt well-disposed towards that week, is no longer viable. This will make it easier for the PM to see threats coming, the most obvious of them at the moment being Ishiba Shigeru, the hugely ambitious if questionably competent Regional Revitalisation Minister who recently launched his own LDP faction, seemingly with a view to challenging Abe for party leadership in the future. If Abe’s approval slides heavily again (the next big challenge is next year’s double header of House of Councillors elections and TPP ratification), it’s from Ishiba that the only truly credible attack on his position would come – and until the opposition parties get their house in order and start providing a believable alternative, that internal LDP drama is, once again, the only way that Japan’s government is going to see change or reform.