Everyone I meet these days asks me the same question: “Is Shinzo Abe going to resign as Prime Minister of Japan?”
My answer is “I hope not.” However, I wouldn’t be surprised if he does. I base my reply on conversations I am having with experienced journalists and by looking through the huge number of stories in the Japanese newspapers and on websites about Mr Mr Abe’s declining popularity. It now looks difficult for him to win a third, three-year term as the leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
The LDP is due to hold a vote to elect a party leader in September. Mr Abe may have to announce he is not standing before then. Effectively, that means he could resign at any moment.
The problem with surveys of public opinion is that they tend to reinforce whatever the dominant view is in the media. The press have a negative assessment of Mr Abe’s domestic performance – and this, unsurprisingly, is shared by their readers. However, opinion polls are a poor way to judge a leader’s diplomatic skills or his international standing.
I am not qualified to know whether there is any real substance to the allegations of suspected cronyism which are being reported in the press. But I was struck by an article published this week on LinkedIn by Edo Naito, who wrote that the scandal in Japan is not about politics but actually reflects a crisis in its bureaucracy. He says that if any commercial bank in Japan made the kind of mistakes we are now seeing across all sections of the government, they would have been run out of business.
“If any commercial bank in Japan made the kind of mistakes we are now seeing across all sections of the government, they would have been run out of business” – Edo Naito
Mr Naito also observes that while the media and the opposition obsess over the Prime Minister’s “accountability” they overlook serious failings within national and local government. He argues that political resignations cannot solve such systemic problems.
Reputation at stake
In my latest article for the Japanese newspaper Sankei, I make the argument that if Mr Abe goes, it will damage Japan’s international reputation.
He has been a skilled diplomat, particularly this year, gaining unexpected concessions from President Trump and winning trust with China. Following his trip to Florida, it would be a great shame if he was unable to take up the tentative offer of an official visit to Beijing – a diplomatic milestone.
At a talk about China I attended this week, I was told that President Xi has made this rule: “You should not externalise internal party conflicts”. In the rigidly controlled Chinese Communist Party there is little scope for that. In a lively democracy, with a free press, like Japan, there is always space for rivalry, gossip and criticism.
Unfortunately, the domestic Japanese media’s relentless interest in activities in local government in Ehime and Osaka tends to add to the overall impression that Japan is inward-looking, rather than a player on the world stage.
I believe that if Mr Abe’s term in office is cut short because of domestic political scandal, Japan will lose a leader who has won much respect internationally. Its status both in China and America is at risk of being diminished.