When Shinzo Abe led the LDP to a landslide lower house election in late 2012, excitement in and outside of Japan about an abnormally productive period in Japanese politics featuring a strong, popular and reformist prime minister was palpable.
The 18 May 2013 cover of The Economist depicted Abe as a flying super hero; Abe's opinion polling was at Koizumi levels (the last Japanese prime minister to spark such excitement). The LDP-led coalition's second thumping of the dispirited Democratic Part of Japan in the Upper House elections in July last year (an election which also saw a fracturing of the opposition on both the left and right of the resurgent LDP), further strengthened Abe's hand and hopes for his administration.
Abe was popular within the LDP and faced no clear rival (unlike Koizumi a decade earlier), the LDP coalition controlled both houses of parliament and faced a weak and disorganised opposition, and Abe and his cabinet had strong public backing aided by an economic upturn.
Abe has spent some of this unprecedented political capital to pursue tough economic reforms (joining TPP negotiations, the trade deal with Australia and hiking taxes) and security reforms (setting up the National Security Council, passing the new state secrets law, easing bans on arms exports, reinterpreting Article 9), and to politically reinforce his revisionist views on Japanese wartime history by visiting Yasukuni shrine.
Coming into the second half of his second term as prime minister, Abe's political position shows signs of weakening; we may be seeing a return to the frustrating 'normal' of Japanese politics.
The economy is softening after the effects of the fiscal pump-priming and ultra-loose monetary policy pass through, and the challenges of structural economic reform are starting to bite. The much-needed increase in the value-added tax is causing sharp short-term economic pain. The time to turn back to Japan's nuclear reactors (that accounted for about a third of power generation before the Fukushima disaster) has arrived.
Abe and his cabinet are seeing their high and resilient poll numbers start to sag, and with it comes the inevitable calls for Abe to circle the wagons and focus on support for local economies and not structural reforms. Within the LDP, Ishiba Shigeru's challenge to Abe is growing. In the latest cabinet reshuffle, Abe was forced to give Ishiba a portfolio that will allow Ishiba to strengthen his local political networks, the key to political success in Japan. And the dispirited, fractured opposition is recovering from its double thumping and beginning to act appropriately. The opposition successfully pressured Abe to dump two newly promoted female cabinet ministers, one for the misdemeanor offence of handing out hand-fans to supporters.
Abe's ability to traverse the world as Japan's leading statesman and his ability to expend political capital pushing through reforms are both under challenge. Good for Australia that the trade deal with its largest source of investment from Asia and its second-largest export market was concluded in Abe's extended honeymoon period. This period may well be over.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user CSIS.