Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe marked his 1,981st day in office on May 28, overtaking Junichiro Koizumi as the nation's third-longest-serving postwar leader. In his time at the top, Abe has led a national security policy overhaul, but he has made little headway when it comes to generating sustainable growth and putting the government's finances in order. The public needs to see that he is not letting his long stay in power go to his head.
Including his first, brief stint running the country from 2006 to 2007, Abe's tenure ranks behind only Eisaku Sato's 2,798 days and Shigeru Yoshida's 2,616 days. His return to power in December 2012 stopped the revolving door to the prime minister's office -- Japan had gone through six leaders in six years. Undeniably, Abe has brought stability to the government and raised the country's profile on the international stage.
Backed by high approval ratings, he managed to pass a package of national security bills, the centerpiece of which enables Japan to engage in collective self-defense -- to come to the aid of allies under attack. But the prime minister makes no secret of his desire to go further and alter the constitution's war-renouncing Article 9. The Democratic Party and other opposition groups are critical of Abe on the security front, arguing his approach is eroding the nation's postwar commitment to pacifism. So before he launches a formal bid to amend the constitution, he faces the challenge of building a broad consensus among the public.
As for the economy, aggressive monetary easing -- one of the three "arrows" of Abenomics -- sent the yen lower and drove stocks higher, helping to improve corporate earnings and employment. But his government's growth strategy, the third arrow of the economic revitalization package, has had little tangible effect so far.
Regulatory reforms, intended to open up new business opportunities and stoke technological innovation, lack punch. Medicine, nursing care and employment have yet to be freed from "bedrock regulations" that protect vested interests.
Abe's policymakers seem convinced that economic growth will be the ticket to fiscal soundness. But unless the government pursues two goals in earnest -- cutting expenditures, particularly on social security, and increasing revenue through tax reform -- it will be difficult to pull public finances out of the danger zone. Already, the prime minister has twice postponed a consumption tax increase to 10%.
CLOUD OF SUSPICION Asked about the length of Abe's tenure on May 26, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters, "What is most important is what governments achieve, not how long they serve." He stressed that the Abe government remains enthusiastic about reform and will press ahead with its agenda.
We hope the Abe government makes good on Suga's pledge. But a troubling narrative is beginning to take hold: Japanese media commentators are blaming recent scandals on the hubris that can accompany a lengthy term in power.
One example is the dubious sale of state land to Moritomo Gakuen, an Osaka-based education company. Political considerations are suspected of affecting the way bureaucrats handled the deal.
Then there is the controversy over a plan to open a veterinary school in a highly deregulated special economic zone. Kihei Maekawa, a former top bureaucrat at the education ministry, confirmed the existence of documents suggesting that Abe's wishes influenced the decision to approve Kake Educational Institution's application to open the school. Kake is chaired by a friend of Abe.
The government must clarify how the plan was authorized by summoning Maekawa to testify in parliament. Any attempt to sweep the scandal under the rug would only deepen the public's distrust in politics.