Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister. (Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg)

How Abe Became Japan’s Ultimate Political Survivor

(Bloomberg) -- A few months ago, Shinzo Abe faced calls to resign as a cronyism scandal sent his popularity tanking. On Thursday he’s expected to easily win a party vote that could make him Japan’s longest-serving leader.

How Abe Became Japan’s Ultimate Political Survivor

The turnaround, according to Abe’s colleagues, comes from a steely resolve forged after his first 12-month stint as prime minister ended abruptly in 2007 -- as well as a solid economy, political savvy and a hefty dose of good fortune.

Abe looks set for another three-year term as party leader, giving Japan continuity at a time when U.S. President Donald Trump continues to smack the country over trade, and nuclear talks with North Korea are reaching a critical stage. Japan is also getting ready to host the Group of 20 summit in 2019, and the Summer Olympics in Tokyo the following year.

“He’s extremely determined,” said Katsuei Hirasawa, a lawmaker with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party who served as a personal tutor to Abe in his childhood. “But what’s really important for a leader is to be lucky, and he is.”

How Abe Became Japan’s Ultimate Political Survivor

For Abe, that wasn’t always the case. The heir of a political dynasty, he was long seen as destined for the premiership. He made it in 2006, becoming Japan’s youngest postwar prime minister when he took over from the wavy-haired Junichiro Koizumi, who enjoyed immense popularity during most of his five-year run in office.

Yet things fell apart quickly. Political scandals marred his cabinet, and his party lost control of the upper house of parliament for the first time in about 50 years. Suffering from an intestinal ailment, Abe stepped down a year after taking power.

Revolving Door

His resignation not only seemed like the end of his career, but opened the way for a revolving door series of short-lived premiers that led to policy confusion and eroded Japan’s standing in the world. Two years later, the LDP lost the lower house of parliament to the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, ending a half-century of almost unbroken rule.

How Abe Became Japan’s Ultimate Political Survivor

“He lost his health and went through hell,” said Sanae Takaichi, who served under Abe as LDP policy chief and internal affairs minister from 2014-2017. “I could sense the strength it took to climb back up from there.”

Abe didn’t waste his years in the wilderness. By the time he returned to lead his party a second time in 2012, he had hammered out a new set of policy priorities with broader appeal. Rather than focusing on pet projects like trying to foster national pride in schools, he prioritized bread-and-butter economic issues. He also maintained relationships within the party, which were key to his success in the leadership race.

How Abe Became Japan’s Ultimate Political Survivor

“Those who supported Mr. Abe at the time were really very conservative,” said Masahiko Shibayama, an LDP lawmaker who serves as a special advisor to the party leader. “But Mr. Abe said that we should put the economy at the center of our policies.”

Loyal allies including Shibayama helped Abe come up with a prescription for growth, involving monetary easing, fiscal flexibility and regulatory reform -- what later came to be called Abenomics.

Despite doubts over whether the medicine would revive Japan’s deflation-bound economy, his agenda sparked a rise in the stock market even before he took office. It resonated with the public: Abe’s popularity climbed to a peak in 2013 when he appointed Haruhiko Kuroda, a fellow proponent of drastic monetary easing, as governor of the Bank of Japan.

How Abe Became Japan’s Ultimate Political Survivor

“Good policy in the early years” is part of the reason for Abe’s survival, according to Robert Feldman, senior advisor at Morgan Stanley MUFG Securities Co. in Tokyo. He cited the accord with the Bank of Japan on fighting deflation, as well as corporate tax cuts and the loosening of visa requirements for tourists.

The economy has grown more than 12 percent since Abe took office in 2012, the strongest expansion since the 1990s. That growth, as well as unemployment levels hovering around their lowest in more than 20 years, has helped many in the party overlook recent scandals over government land for schools provided to associates of Abe and his wife Akie.

“There are various opinions about this, but I think the main reason he has been able to maintain this long administration is that monetary and fiscal policy and structural reform have combined to produce results, and things are ticking over,” said Eiichi Hasegawa, special advisor to the prime minister, who has known Abe for 25 years.

How Abe Became Japan’s Ultimate Political Survivor

A Sankei newspaper poll earlier this month showed Abe had the support of 87 percent of LDP lawmakers over his sole opponent Shigeru Ishiba, who has emphasized the need for social security reform and fiscal balance for the debt-ridden economy.

“People want politicians to be highly moral, but they will to some extent support a president or prime minister despite scandals and insincere explanations if the economy is good,” said LDP lawmaker Ryosei Akazawa, who is backing Ishiba in the party leadership race.

Soft Pedal

Besides pressing forward on the economy, Abe has backed away from some conservative policies that appeal to his right-wing base, but worry broader sections of the electorate.

While Koizumi made annual trips to the Yasukuni Shrine, seen by many in Asia as a symbol of Japan’s past military aggression, Abe has visited only once since taking office. His statement on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II avoided inflammatory nationalist rhetoric. And Abe’s assiduous courting of China has helped restore a relationship with Japan’s biggest trading partner that was at its most hostile in decades when he took office.

How Abe Became Japan’s Ultimate Political Survivor

Abe has also been smart on calling elections, according to Tsuneo Watanabe, senior research fellow of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, a policy research group in Tokyo. The LDP retained its two-thirds parliamentary majority in an election last October that Abe called amid heightened public concern over North Korea’s missile threat.

“The timing of the last two elections has been very skillful,” Watanabe said. “They came when the opposition was least expecting it.”

While Abe’s strategic moves have paid off, lawmakers also say he owes a lot to luck. North Korea’s aggressive missile launches and nuclear tests focused public attention on national security, weakening opposition to his policies of increasing defense spending and broadening the role of the armed forces.

How Abe Became Japan’s Ultimate Political Survivor

Abe also benefited from an opposition that crumbled once it lost power, helping him to win five straight electoral victories and push ahead with legislation largely without obstruction. No credible rivals have appeared within his own party, either. The LDP’s most popular member is Koizumi’s son Shinjiro who at 37 is considered a neophyte in Japanese politics.

Trouble Ahead

Despite facing little opposition in his party, Abe faces key challenges in the coming weeks -- none more so than with Japan’s only treaty ally. Shortly after the LDP election, his administration is set for contentious trade talks with the U.S., and an election for governor on the southern island of Okinawa -- home to American military bases -- risks further straining ties.

For a few days Abe will be able to enjoy what may be an unprecedented run as Japan’s leader. He’s got another 14 months before surpassing Taro Katsura, who served several stints in the early 20th century, as the country’s longest-serving prime minister.

How Abe Became Japan’s Ultimate Political Survivor

But don’t expect any celebrations for Abe across Japan. His support among the public remains tepid, with most voters wary of doing anything to further disrupt an economy many fear is perpetually in decline as society ages.

“People both support and don’t support him at the same time,” said Masao Matsumoto, professor in the Social Survey Research Center at Saitama University. “For the moment, they want the current situation to continue, so there’s no reason to get rid of Prime Minister Abe.”

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