Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made history Wednesday by becoming Japan’s longest-serving political leader, though he hasn’t achieved his biggest goal of revising the nation’s pacifist constitution. Abe marked his 2,887th day in office, surpassing Taro Katsura from the early 20th century.
“Day by day, I have made efforts to achieve the policies that I have promised, and because of these daily efforts I’m here to mark this day,” Abe told reporters.
Following his disappointing 2006-2007 term, Abe returned to office in 2012 and has since bolstered Japan’s defense role but hasn’t yet been able to change the constitution and to allow a full-fledged military. Abe and his right-wing supporters have long seen the U.S.-drafted war-renouncing constitution as a legacy of Japan’s World War II defeat and humiliation during U.S. occupation.
Abe has been stepping up his effort to push through a constitutional change before his party leadership, his third term, ends in September 2021. Abe has denied rumors that he will seek a fourth term in the absence of a strong successor.
The charter campaign has struggled due to a lack of support among a public more concerned with the economy and social security. Abe must obtain approval by two-thirds of both houses of parliament plus a majority in a national referendum to make any revision to the constitution.
Abe on Wednesday renewed his pledge to beat deflation, tackle Japan’s aging and declining population and achieve the constitutional revision. Abe’s resignation after his scandal-laden first time was the beginning of six years of annual leadership change, remembered as the era of “revolving door” politics that lacked stability and long-term policies.
When he returned to office in 2012, he vowed to revitalize the nation and get its economy out of the deflationary doldrums that had weighed on growth for years, after the implosion of the country’s financial bubble in the early 1990s.
His “Abenomics” formula of stimulating consumer demand through government spending, massive injections of cash into the economy via central bank purchases of government bonds and other assets and sweeping structural reforms has kept the economy growing, but at a much slower rate than promised. Boosting growth remains a challenge given the fast aging of Japan’s workforce and its shrinking population.
Abe has made only halting progress with reforms intended to improve productivity and open up the labor market. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga cited Abe’s strong leadership and economy-first policies as the main reasons for his long tenure in office. Opponents, however, said Abe’s time in office has led to cronyism, autocracy and caused more damage than benefit to democracy.
“The administration is without legacy or achievement,” said Tetsuro Fukuyama, a senior lawmaker in the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan. “It’s not helping the people’s lives, and the disparity between the riches and the poor is widening.”
Experts say Abe’s long leadership is not necessarily because voters actively support his policies, but is in part based on reluctant support for his party in the absence of viable liberal-center contenders after the 2009-2011 rule of the now-defunct Democratic Party of Japan ended in disappointment and the party broken into smaller groups.
“In a way, Mr. Abe has since been scoring default victories,” Takashi Mikuriya, a University of Tokyo politics professor, told the NHK.
In his second term, Abe has so far survived a spate of scandals, including his own and others in his Cabinet. A recent one involved his annual cherry blossom viewing party. He had to cancel one planned for next spring after he was criticized over the use of taxpayer money for thousands of guests from his election constituency and private support groups.