A historic change in party rules has handed Shinzo Abe the possibility of becoming Japan’s longest-serving prime minister in more than half a century.
The revision, which would allow Mr Abe to stay in power until 2021, marks a stunning turnaround for a country long known for its revolving door of prime ministers to becoming one of the most stable governments among the group of seven leading industrial economies.
On Sunday, the ruling Liberal Democratic party of Japan formally approved a rule change that would allow the head of its party to serve up to three consecutive three-year terms, instead of two.
Many analysts expect Mr Abe to stay in power until 2021 as he continues to enjoy high approval ratings after four years in office. His support was most recently boosted during his successful US trip to meet President Donald Trump. Opposition parties also remain disorganised and weak, while there are no strong challengers to Mr Abe within his ruling party.
The stability marks a reversal of fortune for the prime minister, who returned to power in December 2012 following a brief one-year stint in office through 2007. Including his own first term, he became the nation’s seventh new prime minister in just six years when he made an unusual comeback.
If Mr Abe, who is now the country’s fourth-longest serving prime minister in the postwar period, manages to lead Japan for nine years, he would break the current record held by the LDP’s Eisaku Sato, who was prime minister from 1964 to 1972.
“I will continue our challenge both humbly and strongly without ever forgetting to stay vigilant,” Mr Abe told members of his party on Sunday.
Yasunori Sone, a political-science professor at Keio University, said the rare bout of stability stems from Mr Abe’s strategy of focusing on his economic revival programme while avoiding the nationalist statements that provoked backlashes during his first term.
The extension of the premiership would give Mr Abe a once-in-a-lifetime chance at putting constitutional change to a national referendum. The rise of China and North Korea’s increasing missile development has also bolstered Mr Abe’s efforts to strengthen Japan’s military capabilities.
Still, Mr Abe is likely to proceed slowly in face of public opposition to scrapping the war-renouncing Article 9.
“Mr Abe wants to carry out constitutional revision but he also knows that the opportunity will be lost forever if his effort does not go well so he will be cautious,” Mr Sone said.
His steady leadership could be shaken, however, by an all too familiar source of political nemesis. The prime minister has been dragged into a scandal over the cut-price sale of public land to a religious school, which has been the front-page news for Japanese newspapers and TV programmes over the past few weeks.
Mr Abe insists he had nothing to do with the sale of land to the controversial school operator even though, his wife, Akie Abe, was to become honorary principal of its new primary school.
Although the issue seems unlikely to lead to Mr Abe’s resignation, analysts say the scandal could hurt his popularity if it drags on and gives the impression that success has made the prime minister high-handed.
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