Japan held elections to the Upper House on 10 July, two days after the former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo was assassinated in Nara while campaigning for the candidates of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The resounding victory that the LDP and its coalition partner Komeito secured a majority was a demonstration of the Fumio Kishida administration winning voters’ confidence. This, despite Abe as the leader of the largest faction in the LDP and involved in guiding the Kishida administration leaving the scene was indeed remarkable. With Abe not grooming a successor, there is a fear that this could trigger a power struggle among members of the faction that was led by Abe.
The jubilant mood which normally one sees after an election victory was missing this time. It was noticeably sombre as the party was still reeling from the shocking assassination of Abe, the mentor. With LDP sweeping, Kishida now needs to demonstrate his own identity to be Abe’s able successor to lead the country on the path carved out by Abe.
Abe’s assassination turned the focus of all political parties to protect democracy. Besides the sympathy factor, the voter turnout at little over 52 per cent, surpassing the 48.8 per cent in previous Upper House election in 2019, the second lowest figure on record, also showed that more people were willing to participate in the election process to defend democracy.
Russia’s military operation in Ukraine also affected the electorate as they saw greater relevance on issues such as countering rising commodity prices, diplomacy and security. All these emerged as major issues. People started to worry about the increasing uncertainty in the international situation that might impact Japan’s future. This aspect too influenced voters’ behaviour.
The key issues before Kishida would be to evaluate if there is any need to tweak Abe’s economic policy dubbed as “Abenomics” as it yielded mixed results. The main focus would be to balance increase in defence spending with financial resources, and what timetable should be set for a revision of the Constitution. This was Abe’s long-term goal, which could not be realised because his ruling party did not have a two-third majority in the Upper House necessary to initiate the amendment process. This hurdle being now breached, Kishida shall be in a better position to start the process. Without Abe, the pillar behind the move, Kishida needs to navigate his policies and strategy treading in Abe’s footsteps. Being aware of Abe and Yoshihide Suga being sometimes criticised for their perceived heavy-handed approach, Kishida chose to navigate through the turbulent politics of the country by maintaining a low profile by choice during his first nine months in office. Now, one can expect that he changes that narrative and continue to maintain the high level of approval rating that he enjoyed during the first nine months in office.
With his position being safe, Kishida can stay in office for the next three years as Prime Minister unless he decides to dissolve the Lower House and call for fresh election. Dissolving the Lower House should not be an option. Instead, Kishida needs to focus on realising the objectives carved out by Abe. The LDP’s sweeping victory also meant exceeding the magical 63 seats enabling the LDP to initiate the amendment process of the Constitution. The main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ) struggled to even retain some sitting members who went down on defeat. Other minor opposition parties such as the Sanseito (political participation party) and Reiwa Shinsengumi made marginal gains. Even in victory, the customary smile and jubilation in most of the winning candidates were missing this time. Many wore black arm badges as a mark of mourning.
Amid this sombre situation, Toshimitsu Motegi, the LDP secretary-general, on behalf of the party pledged that the party would carry on the legacy left by Abe. That includes constitutional revision, a goal Abe desperately tried to achieve during his nearly nine years in office. The situation post-Upper House elections look promising because the ruling coalition has the support of the opposition parties Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party) and the CDPJ, both of which favour amending the Pacifist Constitution. By getting two-third majority, the hurdle imposed by Article 96 has been overcome. With political stability secured, the Kishida administration shall now prioritise national security issues, constitutional revision and economic measures. This shall be the best way to honour Abe.
Another significant aspect to note is that a record 35 women or 28 per cent of all 125 victorious candidates were elected. This exceeds the number of 28 achieved in both 2016 and 2019 elections. A proposal to revise the Constitution needs to be approved by at least a two-third majority in both the Lower and Upper houses. From this perspective, this is a significant development.
Among other reasons for the ruling coalition to increase their Upper House seats are that opposition parties failed to be a vehicle for criticism of the administration, and they failed to field unified candidates. In the 2016 and 2019 Upper House elections, the opposition parties united their candidates in single-seat constituencies, thereby increased their strength. The largest opposition party, the CDPJ, did not take the lead in organising such cooperation. This proved to be a major factor for the opposition’s poor show. All these proved to be advantage to the LDP-Komeito ruling coalition.
The most significant aspect in the election was the stance of political parties on the Constitution. Four major parties – LDP, Komeito, Nippon Ishin, and the Democratic Party for the People (DPFP) – were in favour of amendment. This enabled the ruling coalition to secure the two-thirds of seats they needed to initiate revision proposals.
The hurdle is not that simple to overcome. The four parties still have differences over the process of amendment. For example, while the LDP wants to explicitly mention the Self-Defense Forces in the war-renouncing Constitution; its coalition partner Komeito is cautious about this. With the number guaranteed in the Upper House, Kishida needs to focus on compiling a constitutional amendment plan to be tabled in the House discussion rather than use brute force of numbers to get the proposal through.
The Nippon Ishin is keen that the amendment process should have a set time limit and has called for a national referendum to be held on a constitutional revision to coincide with the unified local elections in the spring of 2023. Nippon Ishin’s arguments are even more radical than those of the LDP as it supports Abe’s idea of “nuclear sharing” and supports deploying of US nuclear weapons in Japan and jointly operating them. With Abe no more in the scene, it is a huge challenge for Kishida on how he navigates through turbulent phase of bringing in a new dimension to Japan’s pacifism that would assuage public anxiety and address the tense international situation at the same time.
Before Abe’s assassination, Kishida floated his “new capitalism” policy. This emphasized redistribution of money to correct disparity. But soon the focus shifted to investment and growth, making it almost indistinguishable from Abenomics, the economic policy mix promoted by Abe. The other arrow of Abenomics was monetary easing but the depreciation of the yen could put another challenge to Kishida. It is to be seen if he switches away from Abe’s line and seeks new path.
On the foreign policy front, the foremost issue that confronts Japan is to secure Japan’s security in view of the deteriorating security environment in East Asia that has become more severe and volatile. It is to be seen how Kishida addresses the issue of developing the country’s defence capabilities. There have been talks for quite some time that the self-imposed ceiling of keeping the defence expenditure below 1 per cent of the GDP needs now to be breached in the light of perceived threats to the nation’s security and therefore the need for enhancing defence preparedness. One of the election pledges of the LDP was to increase defence spending to 2 per cent of the GDP. Emboldened by the strong showing in the Upper House elections, Kishida can have now fresh momentum to hike defence spending on a scale beyond the grasp of his slain mentor. Hailing from Hiroshima, though Kishida favours banning nuclear weapons, the new situation would compel him to expand on Abe’s hawkish legacy by using the support of hardliners who are loyal and belonged to Abe’s faction in the LDP. One could expect the next budget to be as much as 6 trillion yen ($45 billion), or an increase of 11 per cent from 2021. Though this is too small as compared to China’s $179 billion (three times more than India), China can still make noise raking up the past to justify, what it perceives as historical wrongs committed by Japan. For record, China is the second-largest military spender after the US now. But if Japan increases its defence expenditure by about 10 per cent every year, it could double its military spending to 2 per cent of GDP by 2030. That would make Japan the world’s third-largest military spender behind the US and China. To assuage the peoples’ apprehension, Kishida might opt for 6 to 7 per cent increase and choose a gradualist approach.
This being said, where from Kishida is going to get the money? While this is for Kishida to ponder about, an opinion poll by Jiji Press endorses an increased defence spending, with two-thirds opining that Japan should acquire missiles with sufficient range to strike enemy bases. Retired defence personnel feel that an annual increase of about 20 per cent or roughly 1 trillion yen would be appropriate as the extra funds should go to maintenance and logistics to ensure the military can deploy the planes, ships and other fighting assets it already owns. Kishida is set to release a revised national security strategy and a new five-year military procurement roadmap by the end of 2022. In the meantime, China’s reactions need to be watched.
Some section of the Japanese people fear that Japan might again slide into militarism as in the past. Throughout post-War years, they have traditionally been wary of big increases in defense spending. But many now worry that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may embolden China to attack neighbouring Taiwan, posing new threats to Japan and therefore public opinion can swing in favour of endorsing government policy for increased defence spending and overhauling the country’s security strategy to secure Japan’s sovereignty.
Despite the compelling situation, Kishida has chosen to play safe and preferred to remain non-committal over the arguments for doubling Japan’s defense spending and for allowing Japan to possess enemy base attack capability. This narrative must change now as the new situation demands robust response. Just because the election is over does not mean he is entitled to press on the gas pedal on those issues. But there is a priority to address the issue.
It also needs to be noted that the Baltic States have committed to invest more on the defence following Russia-Ukraine crisis. This being so, the Kishida administration need not feel shy of downplaying diplomatic efforts to deal with Japan’s traditional rivalries China over Senkaku island and other issues, Russia over the Kurile Islands, and South Korea with a host of historical issues.
There are also burning domestic issues that Kishida needs to address. Stemming population decline, building a sustainable social security system and fiscal health require also priority attention. Since Kishida mentioned that there is “crisis of democracy” in the LDP leadership in 2021, the onus now lies on him on how he takes the opposition on board on dealing with critical issues, both domestic and external, in his nation building process.