Jhe assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe not only came as a huge shock to Japan, but also leaves a huge political void. Although Abe stepped down as leader in 2020, he had not only reaffirmed his role as champion of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) conservatives, but he had also formally assumed leadership of his largest faction. left.
Meanwhile, as a highly respected global statesman, he enjoyed a pulpit of intimidation through domestic and international media, a powerful tool for influencing Japan’s political agenda. Never was that clearer than in February when he used a Sunday talk show appearance to raise the possibility of sharing nuclear weapons with the United States. During Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s first nine months in office, Abe seemed determined to force Kishida to defer to his political ideas.
A significant victory in Sunday’s upper house elections could help boost Kishida’s stature, but it’s not guaranteed he’ll be able to consolidate power among LDP factions on his own, especially as the the shock of Abe’s assassination fades and the public remembers its growing dissatisfaction with Kishida’s handling of rising household commodity inflation. That said, after another election in which opposition parties failed to shake the government majority (the centre-left Democratic Constitutional Party lost seats), Kishida will face little pressure from of the opposition.
However, while the LDP’s balance of power after Abe’s murder may remain fluid, Abe’s political legacy may be even more secure. Even before his death, his influence could be characterized by the phrase Abe borrowed from Margaret Thatcher: There Is No Alternative. Although not everyone in Japan – or even within the LDP – agreed with Abe’s vision for the country or the political direction, there were no better ideas on the table to chart Japan’s course in politics, economic policy and international relations.
Abe and his allies achieved this feat through a long-term campaign to reform the central government – particularly national security institutions and the Prime Minister’s Office, but also economic policy institutions like the Bank of Japan – and by reshaping the LDP into a more ideologically cohesive organization. , a top-down party that would be more evenly committed to Abe’s goals. Older, more liberal lawmakers retired or died. The new candidates recruited by Abe after his return in 2012, the so-called “Abe children”, were loyal to him and his policies. Potential challengers to the LDP who might have challenged its vision were co-opted or pushed aside. But beneath it all was the power of numbers: Abe belonged to the largest faction in the party, and he could also call on the support of a wider informal network of conservative lawmakers from across the party.
Despite these efforts, Abe was not universally supported. He limited dissent within the LDP but could not eradicate it completely, encountering opposition to its trade policies, agricultural policies and monetary policies. Some of his most controversial initiatives have sparked huge protests and forced him to spend precious political capital. In other areas, such as restarting nuclear reactors offline, stubborn public disapproval has thwarted its efforts. His six electoral victories from 2012 were largely based on historically low turnout, particularly among independents, ensuring that the LDP’s electoral machine could secure large majorities. His government enjoyed consistent public support for most of its second term, but less because of its policies than because of the sense of stability that LDP rule provided relative to the opposition.
Nonetheless, on this foundation, Abe built an enduring political legacy that not only outlived his rule—neither Kishida nor Abe’s immediate successor, Yoshihide Suga, fundamentally deviated from Abe’s foreign policy plans. or economical. It could also outlive the man himself. The durability of Abe’s ideas may have less to do with his political power than with the narrowing of Japan’s options in an increasingly risky Asia.
In foreign policy, Abe assumed that the rise of China meant that Japan had no choice but to maintain the United States’ commitment to Japan’s defense and security and prosperity. of Asia more broadly. He has repeatedly taken risks to achieve this goal, including strengthening ties with Australia and India, the other members of an increasingly institutionalized quadrilateral security dialogue, or “Quad”. He has also made parallel competition with China in Southeast Asia a top priority.
Although he tried to stabilize relations with China during his term – Chinese President Xi Jinping was due to visit Japan in the spring of 2020 – after his resignation, Abe became an increasingly vocal critic of human rights violations. man in China and alarmed by the shifting military balance in China. the Taiwan Strait. Last year he argued that “a Taiwan crisis would be a crisis for Japan” and called on the United States to end its policy of strategic ambiguity. Both Suga and Kishida followed Abe’s approach to foreign policy.
The continuities are no less apparent in economic policy, where “Abenomics” endures in all but name. Abe’s appointee, Haruhiko Kuroda, remains as head of the Bank of Japan (at least until next year), and the unconventional monetary easing policies initiated during Abe’s tenure remain in place despite pressure on the yen. “Fiscal flexibility”, the Abe-era term for short-term fiscal stimulus and medium- to long-term consolidation, remains the position of the Kishida government, although thanks to Abe’s legacy there is now a greater tolerance for further deficit spending. And Suga and Kishida continued to use new-style industrial policies to promote growth in high-tech sectors. While Kishida has hinted that his “new capitalism” may be more redistributive than Abenomics, so far it has sounded virtually identical to Abenomics.
Perhaps in time, as new challenges emerge in Japan, leaders will move away from Abe’s political frameworks. The aftermath of Russia’s war in Ukraine may already be forcing Kishida’s government to think differently about energy and economic security, and Kishida’s choice of a successor as Bank of Japan governor will determine whether policies Abe-era easing continues under a new governor.
But the memory of Abe’s successes – not to mention continued pressure from his cronies – will make it difficult for Kishida and future prime ministers to change course. After all, Abe’s lieutenants and the young lawmakers whose careers he propelled will remain in important positions for years to come, defending his legacy and pressing to finish the job left unfinished. For the foreseeable future, there will be no alternative to Abe.
More Must-Have Stories from TIME