Teflon Abe gets reprieve in dysfunctional Tokyo

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Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrives at his office in Tokyo. Reuters / Kim Kyung-Hoon

If you’re wondering just how Japan’s Shinzo Abe stays in power despite lower approval ratings than Donald Trump, look no further than Renho Murata.

The conventions of Politics 101 seem completely lost on Renho, who until last week ran Japan’s main opposition Democratic Party. Basic theory holds that when your nemesis is on the ropes (Abe’s support rate is a dismal 26%), you pounce. You hit harder, and relentlessly, to ensure a knockout for your party. If you’re Renho, though, you just up and quit.

Yes, a politician often touted as a future prime minister gave up after 10 months as one of the only women in Japanese history to run a major party. Ostensibly, Renho resigned to take responsibility for her party’s defeat in recent local elections, including in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly. The upshot is that, for all the blows he sustained last week, Abe’s odds of living to fight other bouts just improved.

In many ways it was a dreadful week for Abe. Aside from collapsing approval numbers, data reminded voters that, nearly five years on, Abenomics is sputtering. Manufacturing slowed for a second straight month as export demand waned, a trend likely to intensify as the yen rises. Consumer prices were unchanged in June despite historic Bank of Japan easing and drum-tight labor markets. And the political winds in Tokyo shifted further against the policy change closest to Abe’s heart: revising the country’s pacifist post-war constitution.

Abe lost a key cabinet member in Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, another of the very few prominent women in Japanese politics. Inada quit over a scandal involving military reports on Japan’s peacekeeping activities in South Sudan. And it all feels eerily familiar. A similar mix of cabinet controversies and unpopular policies undid Abe’s 2006-2007 premiership. Might history be repeating itself?

It might’ve had Renho not stepped aside, leaving the Democratic Party even more rudderless. Days before she resigned, her party also lost former Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. A polite way to put it is that Noda and Renho have stepped aside to make room for stronger party leadership. They could just as easily be fleeing what they perceive to be a sinking ship in search of a sturdier political vessel.

Two of Tokyo’s most important female exemplars just left the arena – and awkwardly, two days before Tokyo hosted Sunday’s 22nd annual International Conference for Women in Business

What’s not up for debate is that Abe’s dismal week ended on a happier note as opposition chaos offers him options. That includes the ruling Liberal Democratic Party having “an opportunity to initiate what 24 hours ago would’ve been considered political suicide: dissolve the Diet and call a House of Representatives election,” according to the political scientist Michael Cucek, who writes the Shisaku blog. That way, Abe can get a new mandate from voters while the opposition is flat on its back.

Is the return of Teflon Abe good news? Not necessarily, if it relieves pressure on him to carry through structural reforms to revitalize the economy. While Renho’s party lost big in Tokyo elections earlier this month, so did Abe’s. After candidates backed by Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike prevailed, policy wonks thought Abe would redouble efforts to implement his Abenomics reforms. With Renho out of commission and her party leaderless, such optimism may also be misplaced.

There are myriad other implications as Renho and Inada bow out. A key one is that Tokyo’s “womenomics” push to empower the other half of the population just sustained a couple of serious blows. A missing element has been female role models in top jobs to inspire young women to think bigger and demand greater equality. Two of Tokyo’s most important female exemplars just left the arena – and awkwardly, two days before Tokyo hosted Sunday’s 22nd annual International Conference for Women in Business.

A bigger implication may be that Abe probably isn’t going anywhere, at least not yet. Opposition disarray means he gets to don his Teflon suit a bit longer.

William Pesek is a Tokyo-based journalist, a former columnist for Barron’s and Bloomberg and the author of ‘Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan’s Lost Decades.’ Follow him on Twitter @williampesek

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