The PM sees constitutional change as vital to securing his legacyby John Nilsson-Wright / October 24, 2017 / Leave a comment
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Photo: KEIZO MORI/UPI/PA Images If political success is the ability to exceed expectations then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is clearly a winner. Barely two weeks ago the conventional wisdom was that Japan’s governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was facing a possible shock defeat at the hands of the newly formed (and optimistically entitled) Party of Hope (Kibo no To) of Yuriko Koike, the governor of Tokyo—a supposedly iconoclastic new-style populist leader who had pitched herself as an alternative to the staid traditions of conventional politics. Sunday’s election has, however, produced a dramatically different outcome. Abe’s LDP has secured a decisive 284 seats, dominating a hybrid electoral contest in which it captured 80 percent of first past the post single member districts and the biggest share—some 33 percent—of the proportional representation seats in Japan’s powerful Lower House. Together with its coalition partner, Komeito, the LDP now has a commanding 313 seats—a super-majority of more than two-thirds of the 465 seat House of Representatives that will allow the government to continue to dominate the parliamentary environment. By contrast, Kibo no To failed dramatically, winning just 50 seats overall, coming third behind the newly formed rival opposition party, the Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP) with 55 seats, and dismally gaining just one out of 25 single-member seats in Tokyo, its pre-election political base and heartland. What went wrong and why did hope evaporate so quickly? Koike’s problems were part tactical and part substantive. Shortly after the founding of her party on 25th September, the then main opposition party, the Democratic Party (DP) appeared to implode with its leader, Seiji Maehara, announcing his intention to run as an independent and calling on his colleagues to join Koike’s new party. However, instead of adopting a big tent approach, welcoming the Democrats, Koike applied a selective political litmus test allowing only conservative-leaning members favouring constitutional revision and strong defence policy to join Kibo. In response, progressive Democrats regrouped to form the CDP, under a new leader, Yukio Edano, in the process splitting the opposition parties and offering an alternative to the electorate. Koike’s decision not to run as a candidate, continuing instead as governor, immediately raised an important doubt in the minds of the voters. A vote for Kibo might supplant the LDP, but without Koike leading the party in the national assembly, it was unclear who might replace Abe as Prime Minister in a future alternative government. Additionally, on policy, Kibo sought to be all things to all voters, offering a conservative stance on security and identity politics while embracing progressive and populist policies on welfare, free education and child care, hedging on an increase to the consumption tax, while signalling opposition to nuclear power but only over the long-term. By contrast, the CDP’s biggest asset was its authenticity, forcefully rejecting constitutional revision and any restart of Japan’s nuclear reactors. It also had a compelling leader in Edano who quickly energised voters in a campaign in which the CDP cleverly relied on social media and a ballooning twitter following that rapidly eclipsed the other parties. “Voters showed a preference for Abe’s strong national security credentials in confronting the threat of North Korea” Sunday’s election was at root a vote for continuity rather than change. Abe’s calculated gamble that a risk-averse electorate would prefer an experienced, but not especially popular LDP cabinet (even in the face of two damaging political scandals that had sharply dented the prime minister’s own popularity) has paid off. Young voters, especially newly enfranchised 18 and 19 year olds (voting for the first time since the lowering of the voting age from 20) opted for an LDP that claimed to have delivered a rising stock market, low unemployment, the longest run of economic growth in 11 years and 2.5 per cent GDP growth in the second quarter of this year. Paralleling this desire for economic stability, has been the preference for Abe’s strong national security credentials in confronting the military threat of North Korea. Kim Jong-un’s two recent missile launches over Japan and his 3rd September sixth nuclear test, has unnerved a Japanese public worried about the prospects of an escalating conflict between a provocative and confident Kim and an impulsive President Trump apparently willing to support military action against Pyongyang. The LDP’s victory is unlikely to usher in major policy changes. Its overall electoral numbers have barely changed—a 0.17 per cent increase in its share, giving it some 33 per cent of the overall vote but more than 60 per cent of the seats thanks to the distorting impact of the first past the post contest. A fractured and divided opposition was unable to attract a discriminating electorate that opted for the LDP more out of pragmatism than enthusiasm. Consequently, Abe cannot readily claim a mandate for new initiatives or radical departures. He has already pledged to keep his cabinet (last reshuffled in August) essentially unchanged, and on policy issues is likely to double-down on structural reform (sometimes called the third arrow of “Abenomics”), improving social welfare, tackling the country’s demographic time-bomb, and continuing to work closely with the US, in the run up to Trump’s Asia visit in early November, to find a solution to the North Korea problem. The one notable area where we may see a new focus is constitutional revision. For Abe this is personally important, a key priority in securing his political legacy, and, (one imagines), far more meaningful than the statistical boast of becoming the country’s longest-serving postwar premier—an achievement he is set to achieve if, as now seems likely, he is re-elected for a third three-year term as LDP party’s leader in September 2018. “Public opinion is split broadly 50-50 for and against the idea of constitutional change” For Japan’s conservatives, the country’s 1947 Constitution is a foreign document, drafted and effectively imposed by the United States during the postwar Occupation. Changing it is a symbolic affirmation of political maturity and legitimate identity politics. It is neither a step-backwards to militarism as foreign critics in China and South Korea have claimed, nor is it an essential part of enhancing Japan’s security readiness. Legislative changes to the country’s national security provisions from 2015 have already given the country much more flexibility to work constructively with the US and other security partners. By contrast, for progressive politicians and especially for older voters, the Constitution is an expression of another, equally legitimate form of identity politics—an affirmation of the country’s pacifist traditions, its support for liberal, UN-centered internationalism and a rejection of power politics. Public opinion is split broadly 50-50 for and against the idea of constitutional change. In making the case for revision (which featured in the LDP’s manifesto), Abe has yet to find a way of bridging the sharp divide between these two distinct political communities. As a leader enjoying the luxury of newly acquired political space and time, Abe will need to be remarkably agile in establishing a compelling narrative for constitutional revision. Wisely he has made it clear in his post-election statements that he is not unambiguously committed to his original timetable of 2020 for revision and that he wishes to build a consensus for change. While the LDP, in partnership with other conservative parties, such as Kibo no To, can provide the two-thirds majority in both houses of the national assembly to secure revision, Abe will also have to win the backing of the majority of the public in a national referendum. If he can do that, then the prime minister will not only have succeeded electorally; he will also unambiguously and irrevocably have changed Japan and in one meaningful respect won the contest to re-set the country’s future.