Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe dragged the LDP rightward. Photo: AFP / Yomiuri Shimbun

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe should stay in office beyond 2021 when his current term expires because there is no one more qualified to lead Japan under an increasingly harsh international environment. For the sake of Japan, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) should change the rules to allow Abe to run for another term in office. And there is already a clear precedent for it, as the rule was changed in 2017 to allow Abe to run in the following year for his third term as party president.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe answers a question during a joint press conference of the seventh Tokyo International Conference on African Development in Yokohama on August 30, 2019. Photo: AFP / Toshifumi Kitamura

It is interesting to note that Japan’s experience of revolving prime ministers started and ended with Abe. After stepping down in 2007 during his first term, Japan experienced successive changes of prime ministers within five years before his shock return in 2012.

During that period of revolving leadership, the country suffered from a lack of strong leadership and it wandered into the wilderness as it  grappled with complex international and national issues, including its relationship with its neighbor China.

Since Abe took office in 2012, he has provided firm, steady leadership and put an end to the revolving weak leadership that had plagued the country for so long. He curbed the power of the civil service and reinforced the government’s authority over it.

His unprecedented monetary-easing policy helped to break deflation.

Japan’s ties with China, which took a nosedive in 2012, are finally back on the mend, and Chinese President Xi Jinping is scheduled to make a state visit next year.

Not to forget, Japan is set to host the Tokyo Olympics next year, and it will hold the rare distinction of hosting the Olympic Games twice. Japan is back, and Abe deserves a lot of credit for it.

As things are getting better, there is no reason to rock the boat. Hence there are three reasons Abe must stay on beyond 2021.

First, in 2021, the United States will either have the current president, Donald Trump, still in the White House after being re-elected or a new Democratic president. Abe has managed to forge a close personal relationship with Trump, and while the cultivation of the mercurial president has paid few dividends, it is better to keep Trump on the good side. After all, Trump has proved himself to be an extremely vindictive man who doesn’t take kindly to criticism. Trump’s response to the leaked memos of the former UK ambassador to the US is a very good example.

Should Trump get re-elected and Abe is no longer in power, there is no guarantee that the new leader will be able to forge similar personal chemistry with Trump as Abe did.

Second, even if Trump loses the 2020 US election and is replaced by a Democrat, it will be naive for Japan to expect its trade problems with the US to disappear overnight. With trade protectionism rising in the US, and Democrats using increasingly harsh campaign rhetoric to outdo Trump on being tough on trade, it will be politically difficult for the new US president to soften his stance with Japan.

Therefore, Japan needs an experienced leader at the helm to handle any issues that arise.

Third, Japanese politics is very much personality-based. People in Japan vote based on the party leader, the man who is the face of the party. This is the main reason Japan has had many prime ministers in the past, especially in the period between 2007 to 2012.

Abe’s predecessors were all pressured by their parties to resign after they had become deeply unpopular and were perceived as liabilities to their parties. But Abe has stayed consistently popular compared with his rivals, and he has a solid track record of winning elections. This has contributed to his political strength to be able to institute tough domestic reforms, such as the decision to proceed with the long delayed sales-tax increase from 8% to 10%.

Barring any changes to the circumstances, it will be prudent for the LDP to keep Abe at the helm.

Maa Zhi Hong is a political analyst in Singapore who has written for Today, Asia Times, the South China Morning Post and Nikkei Asian Review. His official Instagram account is @maazhihongofficial.

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