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Politics

Will Trump's reelection keep golf buddy Abe around longer too?

Japanese leader becomes the nation's longest-serving prime minister

U.S. President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrive at a golf course in Chiba Prefecture during Trump's trip to Japan in May. Some insiders say their rapport could lead to a fourth term for Abe.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Shinzo Abe became Japan's longest-serving prime minister Tuesday. Yet there is talk of him serving beyond his term limit in 2021, with some in the ruling party suggesting that another win by Donald Trump in the 2020 U.S. presidential election would bolster that prospect.

Abe and Trump have built a strong rapport in recent years and are on a first-name basis. Other world leaders often ask the prime minster at bilateral meetings how he managed that feat with a famously unpredictable American leader.

"What do we do if other countries ask us what happens when 'Shinzo' goes away?" LDP tax policy chief Akira Amari wondered aloud. 

For now, the prime minister has shown no interest in seeking another term. He has told those around him that he already won nine elections: three lower house races, three upper house races, and three races to lead the LDP.

Abe first became prime minister in 2006, only to step down roughly a year later. His current tenure, begun in December 2012, has been more solid. Having tied the 2,886-day record set by Taro Katsura before World War II, Abe is now on track to beat great-uncle Eisaku Sato's record of 2,798 consecutive days in office next August.

Longevity can bring its own challenges. "Even though Eisaku Sato also served a long time, you must not become like him," Finance Minister Taro Aso has told Abe. Sato's last days in office were eclipsed by a bitter succession battle.

The race to succeed Abe, whose current term ends in September 2021, remains wide open. But the prime minister appointed several candidates to key posts at a cabinet reshuffle in September. Prominent names include Liberal Democratic Party policy chief Fumio Kishida, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, Defense Minister Taro Kono and Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi.

"You need to be able to tell people what you want to do as prime minister," Aso told Kishida, a leading candidate, at a recent meeting in Tokyo.

The prime minister has plenty on his plate for his nearly two years left in office. Legislation to hold a referendum on constitutional revisions, one of his biggest goals, is stuck in parliament and unlikely to pass this session. Abe is also struggling to make progress on a peace treaty with Russia, decades-ago North Korean abductions of Japanese citizens, and fully leaving the deflationary economy behind.

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