For the first three years of his second premiership, Abe Shinzo surprised many with his restraint and balance. His Cabinets, with a few exceptions, displayed with a mixture of scandal-free operations, diligent policy implementation and submersion of factional and personal rivalries. A deft hand at personnel and calendar management was evident.
Which is what is making the runup to today's announcement of a new Cabinet lineup such a downer. There are too many returnees, too many members of the Seiwakai (Mr. Abe's own faction), too many non-experts being placed as window dressing in posts requiring expertise and too few unfledged MPs getting their first shot at leading a ministry. Most of the first timers will be doubly hobbled because they will not even have a ministry behind them. Instead they will be state ministers shepherded around by the Cabinet Office.
Staying in place are Suga Yoshihide at Chief Cabinet Secretary, Takaichi Sanae at General Affairs, Aso Taro at Finance, Kishida Fumio at Foreign Affairs, Shiozaki Yasuhisa at Health/Pensions/Labor and the Komeito's Ishii Keichi at Infrastructure & Tourism.
Suga Yoshihide is the heart and soul of the Abe administration. Lacking the prerequisites for leadership of the modern LDP and without a thirst for the premiership, he returns to 1) being charge of the bureaucracy, including the recruitment and advancement of the top 600 bureaucrats, 2) being in charge of the Cabinet's work flow and 3) being the chief government spokesman.
Enough for anybody, really.
Takaichi and Shiozaki are Abe loyalists. Both served Abe as cabinet ministers in his first term (2006-07). Aso is something an Abe frenemy. He needs to be kept close even though 1) he cannot fundamentally be trusted and 2) his tongue repeatedly creates controversy.
Entering the Cabinet are Inada Tomomi and Seko Hiroshige. Both are more than mere Abe loyalists: they are sycophants. Seko indeed has played Mini-Me to Abe these past three years (Link), traveling with him around the world, making a particular spectacle of himself in dealings with Vladimir Putin. Both are largely amateurs in the policy areas they will be managing.
The inclusion of Inada and Seko in the Cabinet, combined with the retention of Takaichi and the rumored slide of Abe personal retainer Furuya Kenji into the vacant party post of elections chairman sends a distrubing message -- that Abe, post-House of Councillors 2016, is not in a mood to share with other factions and forces within the LDP. Closeness or service to the party president will be rewarded; all others will just have to lump it.
Loyalty is of course important for rulers. However, so are knowledge and perspective - neither of which sycophants and/or personal debtors can provide. Leadership demands that one restrain oneself, not take all one can, convincing those not in the inner circle that the system has rewards, not just humiliations, for them.
Abe's seeming abandonment of magnanimity and restraint has me worried. Abe put together a similar team of loyalist and fellow travelers in 2006, one which the news media dubbed the "Friends of Shinzo" Cabinet. Their calamitous performances individually and as a Cabinet make me worried about their echo today.
[For my earlier take on the proposed new lineup of the LDP secretariat, click here.]