TOKYO (Reuters) - Buoyed by a December election landslide, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is rolling out a comprehensive PR strategy mixing Facebook, public appearances and policy announcements to prop up voter ratings ahead of a crucial July poll in an effort to avoid becoming just the latest of the country’s short-term leaders.
Backed by media-savvy advisers, Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) hope to stay in power long enough to implement a broader agenda going well beyond reviving a stagnant economy to altering a pacifist constitution, seeking a bigger global security role and revising Japan’s take on its wartime history.
The strategy, a far cry from the often mixed and amateurish messages of Japan’s revolving door leaders, is aimed at giving the LDP and its coalition partner a good shot at winning a July upper house poll to take control of both houses of parliament.
“They are not only being strategic in what they announce and when - taking time for people to digest the announcements - but they are being strategic in how they talk about things,” said Deborah Hayden, regional director at the Japan office of Edelman, the world’s largest PR firm.
“They’re giving people a sense of what it means - the ‘whys’ rather than just ‘here are the facts’.”
The LDP-led bloc has a two-thirds majority in the lower house - big enough to override most legislative objections by the upper chamber - but a majority in both houses would make it easier to push through policies, and holding two-thirds in both chambers would open the door to revising the 1947 U.S.-drafted constitution for the first time.
“Only after winning in the lower and then the upper house can we manage parliament with stability and carry out bold policies,” Abe told NHK public TV on Sunday.
“LIKE” THE PM
The strategic PR campaign, a departure from previous ad hoc attempts to harness the power of the media, includes the prime minister’s office opening a Japanese language Facebook account - it had one in English after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami disasters - in addition to Abe’s personal account.
“Under (defeated Democratic Party Prime Minister Yoshihiko) Noda, they were very cautious about having wider feedback through Facebook. They were afraid of having negative comments,” said a person familiar with Abe’s media strategy.
Japanese rightwing activists are frequent Internet users and have targeted those who offend them with comments and threats.
On Twitter, too, Abe is leading the charge for a more modern Japanese political machine, with around 54,500 followers, compared to fewer than 1,900 for his predecessor in the prime minister’s office. By comparison, U.S. President Barack Obama has more than 25.7 million Twitter followers.
Several of Abe’s aides are involved in media strategizing, including Isao Iijima, often compared to U.S. Republican strategist Karl Rove when he served as adviser to soundbite-savvy Junichiro Koizumi during a rare 5-year term that ended in 2006.
“This administration is very aware of the importance of information dissemination,” said the person familiar with Abe’s media strategy, which also includes targeted interviews, news conferences and keeping ministers “on message”.
Those ministers, of course, have only been in office less than three weeks and need to avoid the scandals and gaffes that plagued Abe’s first 2006-07 administration, which ended with his abrupt resignation just months after losing an upper house poll.
“They’ve got a grace period and have plans afoot, but they have got to deliver on it,” said Edelman’s Hayden.
In an effort to reduce the risk of mistakes, Abe has abandoned the twice-daily brief stand-up Q&A sessions with reporters that were skillfully used by Koizumi, but tripped up many subsequent leaders including Abe himself.
The government and the LDP have taken a number of symbolic steps to try to convince a wary public, which appears to have let the LDP back on sufferance, that the hidebound party that ruled for most of the past six decades has changed.
The glass separating receptionists from the public at LDP headquarters has been removed to present a more “open image”, women have been appointed to key party posts, and cameras were allowed to film the start of the New Year’s first cabinet meeting in the room where ministers deliberate - rather than just the traditional photograph of them sitting stiffly in an ante-room.
Key to the Abe strategy is an initial focus on fixing the economy, trapped in deflation and stuck in recession, with a potent mix of spending and easy monetary policy.
By prioritizing economic revival, “I think many people will have a sense of security,” Abe told NHK. “After that, I want to explain how important it is to write our constitution with our own hands to pave the way for a new 21st century era,” he said.
Advisers have mapped out a steady flow of economic policy announcements to keep up momentum - although the real verdict on his print-money-and-spend-it policies will take time.
He also plans a judicious mix of overseas trips including a probable visit to Washington next month and one to Moscow in May to show off diplomatic prowess. Abe begins his travels this week, visiting Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam.
Following Friday’s unveiling of a 10.3 trillion yen ($115.6 billion) stimulus package, the cabinet will approve an extra budget to fund it on Tuesday. Then, at a January 21-22 policy meeting, the Bank of Japan - under intense pressure from Abe - is expected to double its inflation target to 2 percent and consider easing monetary policy again. A draft budget for the year beginning in April should be ready by the end of this month, and the extra budget for 2012-13 could pass in February.
The government then appoints two new BOJ deputy governors in March and a new central bank governor to replace Masaaki Shirakawa whose term expires in April, most likely people more willing to bend to Abe’s wishes on easy money - although the appointments need approval by both houses of parliament.
May will likely see the 2013-14 budget enacted and in June, government advisers are to unveil plans to boost competitiveness, spur growth and rein in Japan’s bulging debt.
“They have a big agenda, it’s very impressive and they seem to be staying on message - that they are focusing on the economy,” said Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo. “They want to win the upper house election, and then they will do what they want.”
Editing by Ian Geoghegan