Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s political machine, the conservative Liberal Democratic Party in coalition with the Buddhist Komeito Party, is widely expected to maintain its political ground in Sunday’s upper house elections. In recent polling a majority of respondents said they wanted the ruling coalition to retain control of the house.
In the 245-seat body, 124 seats are in play this year. The ruling coalition goes into the election with 70 seats that are not up for voting this cycle. meaning it needs to win 53 seats to maintain its majority. If the LDP wins 67 seats independently, it will have an ex-coalition majority.
In order to have enough votes to push forward his long-held ambition of constitutional revision, Abe needs his coalition and other pro-revision parties to win 85 seats.
The election is viewed in some quarters as a judgment on Abe himself, who, in his current term, has been prime minister since 2012. Regardless of the exact majority he secures, and in the absence of unforeseen circumstances, LDP head Abe will become, this November, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister.
Even so, passing that historical milestone does not necessarily make Abe – whose term as LDP leader ends in 2021 – a political genius.
Uninspired voters, flaccid opposition
Perhaps Abe’s most notable political trait is his ability to survive multiple scandals. His luck is also such that, in recent years, he has been favored – like the leaders of certain other democracies – by two factors: low voter turnout and the impotence of the opposition.
“Over the years, the Abe administration has accumulated experience winning national elections marked by low turnout,” Ryosuke Nishida, a politics specialist at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, told Japanese media.
Polls are already predicting a low turnout.
The opposition is a legacy of the Democratic Party of Japan. The unlucky DP oversaw the triple whammy of earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima in 2011, and was widely seen as ineffective during its last term, from 2009-13.
Moreover, the left-of-center party subsequently split into two parties, the Constitutional Democratic Party and the Democratic Party for the People, further diluting opposition potential.
“With no end in sight on Japan’s long quest for contestable party politics, the Abe government appears to be the only game in town,” the East Asia Forum, a think tank, opined in a note sent to reporters.
Security first, constitutional revision second
Abe’s constant bowing and scraping to a US president who has pulled the USA out of the Tokyo-sponsored Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, a regional free trade agreement, and who is now forcing a bilateral deal upon Tokyo and threatening tariffs, while essentially ignoring its concerns about North Korea, has not gone un-noticed at home.
Still, Abe’s constant cozying up to the United States suggests how central national security is to his thinking. While he inks partnerships with allies as distant as the EU, Washington remains the key underwriter of Japanese security.
But self-defense starts with the self, and Abe’s long-term – and most ponderous – political objective has been his crusade against Article 9 of Japan’s American-penned constitution. The article asserts that Japan cannot make war, and forbids the ownership of forces with war-making potential.
In Japan, constitutional revision is a tall order
The LDP and Komeito are broadly, but not exactly, aligned on the details of any revision. A two-thirds majority in the upper house on Sunday – not a foregone conclusion – would enable the coalition to put an eventual revision to a national referendum. But even then, according to most analyses, they would not get the numbers in the referendum to make a revision
Perhaps as a hedge against possible failure of his hoped-for constitutional revision, and to help lay a foundation for his successor, Abe is investing big yen in big boys’ toys which give some of his neighbors – who harbor ever-green memories of Japan’s Pacific War aggressions – the vapors.
Not only does Tokyo already field an impressive, Aegis-armed surface fleet, it has stood up a marine brigade, is acquiring the world’s second largest fleet of American F35 stealth fighters and is converting two so-called “helicopter destroyers” into de facto aircraft carriers.
Even if Article 9 remains inviolate, there is little opposition to the ownership of these formidable assets, which was enabled by Abe’s crafty 2014 re-interpretation of a different article of the constitution.
Already facing the long-term rise of China and the clear and present danger North Korea is seen as representing, Abe has now put forward another enemy menacing Japan.
Global vulnerabilities, domestic strengths
Ripping a leaf out of Donald Trump’s playbook by citing “national security” concerns, Abe has initiated measures that may explode into a trade war with long-time business partner/sparring partner South Korea.
Early this month, Tokyo emplaced onerous new export approval processes on materials critical for Korea’s flagship industrial sector, semiconductors. Abe’s stance appeals to conservatives who have long seethed at Tokyo’s lack of response to endless Korean jibes over its 1910-1945 colonial aggressions, which Japan claims it has apologized for and remunerated.
Tokyo’s posture has not caused much of a public ripple at home, but an incandescent South Korea is up in arms, seeing the action (almost certainly correctly) as Japanese retaliation.
However, the situation – if it deteriorates – has potential impact on Japanese companies, who supply the Korean firms, as well as the global supply chain.
Meanwhile, Japan’s economy is suffering a collateral battering from the trade war raging between its two biggest trade partners, China and the United States. Amid falling macro numbers – May saw the sixth straight month of falling exports – some economists predict an imminent recession for Japan.
A mooted consumption tax rise is unpopular with voters, and a recent report has made alarming predictions over the ill health of the national pension service.
Despite these issues, two factors offer Abe wriggle room. Firstly, he still oversees the world’s third-largest economy. Secondly, he is immensely buoyed on the economic front by a tremendous fillip to any politician: Thanks to an aging population generating a falling workforce, unemployment recently fell to just 2.4%. This could be one explanation for his popularity, in polls, among Japanese in their 20s.
Going out on top
Although he is frequently painted abroad as a hard right winger for what is seen as his revisionist historical stance, many at home consider Abe a pragmatist.
Certainly, he has opened up Japan’s long-shuttered economy to increased imports, via TPP and a free trade agreement with the EU, further opened the gates for imported labor and detonated a boom in inbound tourism.
And on the latter front, Abe should benefit from the anticipatory feel-good factors of two international sporting events – the Rugby World Cup this year, and the Tokyo Summer Olympics next year – while still basking in the fading afterglow of the successful (and unprecedented) imperial abdication and opening of the subsequent new era of Reiwa.