TOKYO: Shinzo Abe confirmed Sunday he would run in his ruling party’s leadership election, putting him on track to become Japan’s longest-serving premier and bolstering his dream of reforming the constitution.
Abe is expected to be re-elected head of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) easily, with the vast majority of lawmakers behind him and only one challenger, former defense minister Shigeru Ishiba.
“I have decided to lead Japan as the LDP leader and the prime minister for three more years, and with this determination, I will run for the leadership election next month,” Abe told reporters in a televised news conference.
Winning the September 20 run-off would effectively keep the hawkish Abe in power for another three-year term at the helm of the world’s third-largest economy, with no real political party opposition to speak of.
Abe pledged Sunday to focus on the demographic issues raised by Japan’s rapidly aging society as well as the “tumultuous changing international situation.”
His rival Ishiba has also identified demographic concerns and the regional security threat from nuclear-armed North Korea as the two biggest challenges facing Japan.
In April, Abe found himself on the ropes amid twin cronyism scandals that reignited the debate over whether he had sufficient backing to win a third term as LDP leader as his approval ratings dipped.
But Mikitaka Masuyama, professor of political science at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS), predicted the election would be a “landslide victory for Abe, as he has already obtained support from an overwhelming majority of MPs.”
The election is decided 50-percent by MPs and the other half by the LDP’s rank-and-file members.
“There is no one else qualified to lead Japan in an environment where (President Donald) Trump’s US and China continue their trade battles that could hit the world economy,” Masuyama told AFP.
Analysts believe Abe, 63, will seize on the expected victory to resume his push to reform Japan’s post-war constitution, specifically an article that forces the country to “forever renounce war” and that armed forces will “never be maintained.”
The article creates a headache for Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF), a well-equipped military stuck in a constitutional grey zone.
With regional tensions still high, allies have urged Japan to bolster the role of the SDF but former foes in Beijing, Seoul and Pyongyang would likely react furiously.
“The revision of the Constitution is a long-held policy goal” of the LDP, Abe said earlier this month.
“We cannot keep just discussing (it),” he said.
Revising the Allied-imposed Constitution is a very sensitive matter in pacifist Japan and an August 5 poll in the Asahi Shimbun newspaper showed 52 percent of people were opposed to changing it, compared to 31 percent in favor.
Moreover, more than two-thirds of people in an NHK poll in April said there were more pressing issues in Japan, which continues to battle deflation and problems relating to an aging society.
According to Masuyama, Abe intends “to clarify the role of the Self-Defense Forces, and nothing more,” whereas defense hawk Ishiba prefers a deeper reform of Japan’s military strategy.
“It’s unthinkable that Japan would take a path toward military power,” said the analyst.
Abe took power in December 2012 after a landslide general election victory for the LDP, making a dramatic comeback after a bowel ailment forced him to resign the premiership in 2007 following a year in the role.
Currently, the longest serving Japanese prime minister is Taro Katsura, who served as premier three times between June 1901 to February 1913.
If Abe serves beyond November next year, completing more than 2,886 days as premier including his 2006-2007 term, he will be the longest serving prime minister in the country’s history.