TOKYO (Reuters) - Five years after staring into a political and personal abyss, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is out to prove that the man who threw in the towel after barely a year in office has what it takes to survive as a long-term leader.
Abe, whose 2006-2007 term as premier ended with his abrupt resignation after a year plagued by scandals, an election defeat and a gastro-intestinal ailment worsened by stress, won a rare second chance when his party surged back to power in December.
This time, in an effort to show he’s taking care of his health, Abe has resumed jogging and is sipping room-temperature water during parliament sessions, apparently to avoid stomach upsets. The prime minister also, media say, still consults memos reflecting on mistakes that he jotted down after quitting.
Even some opposition members say Abe and his aides display a better ability to govern than the first administration, when gaffes and scandals cost him five ministers including one who committed suicide.
“I think we can see ... the effect of lessons they learned from the first Abe administration, which gave up mid-stream,” said Tetsuro Fukuyama, an upper house lawmaker whose Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) ousted Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in 2009, only to be crushed themselves at the polls in December.
“I don’t know (if he is a changed man), but I sense that those close to him are pulling together more effectively.”
That said, members of Abe’s team do occasionally show signs of singing a bit out of tune.
Finance Minister and former premier Taro Aso - who some suspect of dreaming of a come-back of his own - said on Tuesday Japan had no plan to buy foreign currency-denominated bonds as part of a monetary easing program. A day earlier, Abe had said buying foreign bonds was a monetary option.
Those who know Abe say the 58-year-old leader, who goes to Washington this week with a message that Japan is reviving its economic and diplomatic strength, has learned a lot from his first term, when critics said he packed his cabinet with inexperienced cronies.
The grandson of a prime minister and scion of an elite political family, Abe was 52 when he first took office, making him Japan’s youngest post-war premier. He also succeeded a popular prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, without having to fight a general election.
“He’s more mature, seasoned, a sort of a ‘come-back’ guy after seeing hell,” said Kunihiko Miyake, a former diplomat who has known Abe for years.
“Before, he was a person in a hurry and wanted results soon, impatiently. Now he is comfortable and not in a hurry,” added Miyake, research director at the Canon Institute for Global Studies in Tokyo.
Critics say Abe’s improved image benefits from the low bar set by predecessors, including himself. Abe is Japan’s seventh prime minister since Koizumi ended a five-year term in 2006.
“He’s assiduously avoiding previous mistakes,” said Brad Glosserman, executive director at Pacific Forum CSIS in Hawaii.
“It’s not a lot to be proud of.”
Clearly, Abe has rethought his priorities, not least to avoid a repeat of the stinging 2007 upper house election loss that created a deadlock in parliament and helped seal his fate.
Abe has made reviving the economy his top priority, a big shift from his first term when his main agenda was to loosen the limits of Japan’s pacifist constitution on the military and restore national pride and patriotism. Those remain vital to Abe’s platform, but for now are taking something of a back seat.
Rising Tokyo share prices and support rates of over 60 percent suggest investors and voters are willing to give the benefit of the doubt to “Abenomics” - a mix of big spending and hyper-easy monetary policies with a promise of reforms to come.
“The strategy is totally different. He’s clearly decided that at least until the upper house election (in July), he is going to focus on the economy,” said Gerry Curtis, a Columbia University political science professor who has watched some two dozen Japanese prime ministers come and go during his career.
Well aware voters punished the Democrats for their perceived inability to govern, Abe’s team is taking pains to act quickly when crises erupt, such as this month’s North Korean nuclear test.
The tight grip at the top also applies to damage control. Finance Minister Aso, known for verbal bloopers, quickly retracted a remark last month that implied terminally ill old people should be allowed to die quickly to save tax money.
And a junior cabinet minister swiftly resigned this month just before a magazine was to publish a damaging article.
Early success might, ironically, carry its own risks.
“If he wins the next upper house election, he would have no obstacles in parliament,” Miyake said, adding that Abe could become over-confident. “He might be tempted to rush ahead again, although I don’t think he would.”
A further flare-up in ties with China or South Korea, strained by territorial feuds and disputes over Japan’s wartime history, could also erode Abe’s image as a deft leader.
Whether Abe can survive the rough patches expected when his honeymoon with markets and voters fades remains to be seen.
“The consistency of the message is one thing that has encouraged people to think more positively,” said Jeffrey Young, research director at U.S.-based hedge fund Woodbine Capital, referring to Abe’s monetary easing push.
“The government must know it is all done on the basis of expectations and are wondering at what point the public, media and the markets will turn to results.”
Editing by Dean Yates