Japan goes to the polls on 21 July to elect half the seats of the Upper House. From all indications, it seems clear that Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) shall sail through for the sixth consecutive electoral victory. It is an amazing turnaround that Japan that saw a number of Prime Ministers come and go in quick frequency, giving rise to the popular joke of Japan having revolving prime ministers, Abe has ensured remarkable longevity in the top job, thereby giving political stability to the country, necessary for policy making.
After his first term as prime minister abruptly ended in 2007, Abe took power back in December 2012. With his current term as leader of the LDP ending in September 2021, Abe shall go down in Japan’s history as the country’s longest serving prime minister. On 23 August, he will overtake his great uncle Eisaku Sato as the longest serving post-war prime minister. Besides, on 20 November he will become the longest serving prime minister of any era since the inception of parliamentary politics in Japan during the Meiji Restoration in the 1880s. While at the top job, Abe has faced obstacles but each time he has come out stronger.
The series of ministerial scandals and nationalistic tone during his first term continued to dog him when he was embroiled in the Morimoto and Kake corruption scandals, wherein he was accused of favouring friends and allies. After Donald Trump became America’s President, he has been facing with tough choices of protecting the alliance relationship with the US as well as dealing with Trump’s threats to impose tariffs on Japanese automobiles. He is also under pressure to shoulder greater burden for hosting American forces in Japanese bases guaranteeing Japan’s security. Even at the G-20 summit in Osaka in June he found tough to handle Trump’s ‘America First’ policy that encourages protectionism, thereby throwing up new challenges to defend rules-based economic order based on which Japanese economy prospered during the post-war years.
The secret of Abe’s staying power is something like this: indifference of the voters and lack of inter-party competition. Though independents are against Abe’s muscular conservatism, they are reluctant to side with anti-Abe elements and therefore prefer to abstain. On the other hand, LDP and Komeito grassroots supporters are sincere in casting their votes. This has been the story of every election since 2012. Because of such a political climate, Abe has been able to circumvent opposition against tax increases, expanding social welfare and opposing the restarting of nuclear reactors.
Such a situation suits Abe and goes in favour of the LDP. The opposition has remained weak after brief experiment of governance by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ, rechristened as Democratic Party for the People (DPFP). When the DPJ was in power during 2009-2012, it could not handle successfully the triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown in 2011, denting public confidence on DPJ’s governing ability. Moreover, the split in the DPJ divides the anti-LDP vote. These explain why the people continue to accept Abe, because there is no viable alternative.
While in the foreign policy front, Abe has scored well, in domestic policy there are questions mark. His Abenomics economic policy package, especially fiscal stimulus and monetary easing, have been relatively successful, though he has been found wanting in implementing structural reforms that could help boost long-term economic growth. Even this failure has not worked against Abe as the opposition parties have failed to offer an alternative economic vision. So, Abe stays on.
Abe’s report card so far has mixed results. While in the domestic economic policy, some progress has been achieved, there is not much to write about Abe’s foreign policy. Abe even encountered controversy in his attempt to reinterpret Article 9 peace clause of the Constitution and passed the implementing Security-related bills to recognize the right of the Japan Self-Defense Forces to engage in limited forms of collective self-defense. Negotiating with Russia to resolve the long-standing dispute over the Northern Territories has remained in limbo. Abe has lost face before the people as his promise to resolve the abduction issue with North Korea remains a non-starter. He has even been snubbed by the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un when he expressed a desire for a summit with him. Even when Kim Jong-un has summits with Trump, Vladimir Putin of Russia, Xi Jinping of China and Moon Jae-in of South Korea, on more than one occasion, Abe is the only leader who has been left out from the summit diplomacy.
It is to be seen if Abe succeeds to realize his goal to revise the Constitution and much would depend upon the outcome of the elections to Upper House. Even if the LDP-Komeito coalition with support from other pro-revision parties achieve the two-thirds supermajority needed to put revisions to a national referendum, that may not be easy as the peoples are unlikely to endorse a drastic way to abandon the peace clause of the Constitution. Even Abe may not necessarily take the support of his junior partner Komeito for granted as being a political offshoot of the Nichiren Buddhist movement Soka Gakkai, it upholds pacifist values. What thus transpires is that Japan lacks competitive party politics, which directly or indirectly impedes innovative policymaking needed to address Japan’s myriad economic, demographic and security challenges.
So, what could be the likely outcome on 21 July? According to an analysis by The Yomiuri Shimbun, the ruling coalition of the LDP and Komeito is expected to win at least 63 seats, more than half of the 124 seats for grabs. The Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan is expected to win more than 20 seats, while in 1-seat constituencies (32 electoral districts), the LDP is seen as having the upper hand. Since the Nippon Ishin no Kai and independents have a positive stance on amending the Constitution, the ruling coalition can expect the support of 164 seats, giving the coalition the two-thirds majority of total seats to initiate Diet deliberations. In this case, 85 seats need to be won.
But there is a catch too. Abe cabinet’s approval rating has plummeted, lower than it was in 2013. Japan’s upper house renews half of its 242 seats every three years as its members serve six-year term. But it will add 3 more seats after these elections which will elect 124 members and the total will go up to 248 in 2022. For a constitutional revision, Abe needs a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Diet and a simple majority in a national referendum. The ruling coalition currently controls a two-third majority in the lower house. It has a slim two-thirds majority in the upper house if the seats of other pro-revision forces, namely the Japan Innovation Parry (JIP), are included. However, since the junior coalition partner Komeito is against a constitutional revision, its role could be decisive despite its small size.
Besides the issue of constitutional revision, Abe needs to deal with the pressing issue of declining birthrate. Raising the fertility rate has remained the biggest challenge for any minister who has remained in charge of demography. With an aging population, Abe’s attempt to draw more women to the work force has not succeeded as the mindset of the Japanese people as also the lawmakers have not changed a bit. Demands are also rising for improving the environment for childcare services. Though each political party has called for eliminating waiting lists of children for day-care facilities, it is hard to say they have presented effective measures.
Some of the measures envisioned for child care include establishing new nursery facilities, free preschool education and childcare services from coming October, covering fees for nursery schools and related facilities for all households with children aged 3 to 5, and exempting residential tax. Such incentives are fine but securing nursery teachers is another bother. Salary for nursery teachers is low. Some local governments are competing fiercely to secure nursery teachers by offering favorable deals.
So, what are the stances of major political parties on issues confronting the nation?
As the ruling senior partner, the LDP appears buoyant and hopes to romp in a majority in the upper house to implement its long-cherished aim to amend Article 9 of the constitution. One of Abe’s lifelong goals has been to rewrite Article 9 of the Constitution to legitimize the existence of the Self Defense Forces, Japan’s de facto military. Scholars have disputed the legality of the SDF because Article 9 renounces Japan’s right to wage war or use force to settle international disputes. It also says Japan shall never maintain land, sea and air forces or other war potential. The party has also prioritized dealing with Japan’s low birthrate and graying population. Other focus areas are making a strong economy, revitalizing local communities and establishing a disaster-resistant country. It remains unclear however how the scheduled hike in the consumption tax to 10 per cent from 8 per cent in October will affect the LDP’s prospect in the election. The oft-delayed tax hike is part of reforms designed to bring stability.
For LDP’s junior partner Komeito, securing political stability is the priority. On the issue of consumption tax hike, it feels that it is fundamentally significant as a stable source of government revenue for improving social security services. On Article 9, Komeito has fundamental differences with the LDP and feels that it is “unlikely to appeal to voters”. Komeito’s policy is to add new provisions to the charter, if necessary, without changing its basic principles.
As regards the CDP, its focus is on improving people’s daily lives as a key pillar of its platform. Sunday will be the main opposition party’s first foray into the triennial election. The party was formed in 2017 by defectors from the short-lived and now defunct Democratic Party. While attacking Abe government for being marred by political scandals, the CDP alleges that Abe administration is continuously destroying the foundations of democracy. The party raised the issue of sontaku, the practice by which bureaucrats tacitly carry out what they assume to be the wishes of politicians, spawning acts of favoritism and other government misconduct.
On the Constitution, the CDP is moving forward with discussions on revisions “from the standpoint of strengthening constitutionalism,” specifically focusing on restricting the right of the prime minister to dissolve the House of Representatives for a snap election, and bolstering citizens’ rights when it comes to information disclosure. As said, the Constitution is one of the major issues in the election because Abe is bent on legitimizing the existence of the SDF by rewriting war-renouncing Article 9.
The CDP wants to “strongly fight against allowing the exercise of collective self-defense and changing Article 9 for the worse,” which means the act of coming to the aid of an ally under armed attack, even if Japan itself is not under attack. Although a U.N. right, collective defense is deemed by many as contrary to Article 9 as Japan’s actions under it could be perceived as use of force. Barring these, the party does not offer any concrete alternative that could appeal the voters.
Ichiro Matsui, leader of Nippon Ishin no Kai, has called for earnest discussions on proposals for constitutional amendments to be held in the Diet after the election. Ishin no Kai wants the Constitutional revision panels in both chambers of the Diet must be convened soon after the election with the consent from both the ruling and opposition parties to hold active debate on the way constitutional revision could proceed. While the party feels that Abenomics, Abe’s reflationary policy mix, helped Japan overcome deflation “to a certain extent”, its regulatory efforts “remain insufficient”, though the economy is recovering moderately. Matsui, however, denied the possibility of his party forming a coalition government with the LDP.
The other smaller parties pose no challenge to the LDP. For the Democratic Party for the People (DPP), “household first” economic policy is the center of its election campaign. It fiercely opposes consumption tax hike and insists tax cuts should be considered without reservation if the need emerges. DPP leader Yuichiro Tamaki said that during the previous Diet session, the DPP was the only opposition party to submit a bill to revise the national referendum to ban political TV commercials throughout the entire campaign period of any referendum on the Constitution. Earlier in 2019, the DPP absorbed the Liberal Party, which was led by former kingmaker Ichiro Ozawa. The party has 23 seats and hopes to win more than eight.
For the Japanese Communist Party (JCP), its main agenda seems to topple the Abe government and force Abe to dissolve the House of Representatives for a snap election. On the issue of constitutional amendment, the party wants more debate. On the consumption tax hike, it is opposed to the proposal and feels that it will be a foolish measure to raise tax at a time when the economy is in doldrums. The smaller player the Social Democratic Party (SDP) aims to prevent the parties that support constitutional revision from securing a two-thirds majority in the Upper House. Both the JCP and the SDP do not have anything much to offer to the voters to make choice.
All the above stances by political parties suggest that the wind is heavily in favour of the LDP-Komeito combine to sail smoothly but one needs to wait if Abe’s aim to win two-thirds majority is realizable. This time around, domestic issues have assumed centre stage and foreign policy issues have taken a backseat.