Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) won a resounding victory in last weekend’s Upper House election. It now has sufficient seats in both houses of parliament to dominate the important Diet committees and ensure passage of key legislation. The LDP, however, has fallen short of obtaining enough votes to push through constitutional change on its own.
Amendments require the support of two-thirds of both houses of the Diet, before being put to a referendum. The LDP still does not command a two-thirds majority, even with the support of right-wing opposition parties that favour ditching the pacifist clauses that were inserted in the constitution by the Americans during the postwar occupation. The LDP would also need the backing of its coalition partner, the New Komeito, the political arm of the lay Buddhist organisation Soka Gakkai. The New Komeito has traditionally supported Japan’s pacifist stance, and during the election campaign Prime Minister Shinzo Abe trod carefully so as not to overstrain the coalition relationship.
Mr Abe undoubtedly has enhanced his power by the election win. The LDP’s position is as strong now as it was when Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi led the party to a stunning electoral victory in 2005. Ironically, as Koizumi’s immediate successor, Abe was a conspicuous failure in the top job first time around. Since returning to office last December, however, a reinvigorated and self-assured Abe has swept all before him. The Democratic Party of Japan, which held power for three years, has been reduced to a rump, and its future existence is in doubt. The experiment in two-party politics Japan embarked upon two decades ago is over.
But behind the appearance of LDP invincibility is a more complex reality.
The first thing to note is that voter turnout for the Upper House election was a miserable 53 per cent – the lowest in 20 years. The party’s big win was built on a shaky basis of voter apathy or disillusionment. Secondly, Abe’s popularity is due largely to recent signs of economic revival: stock prices are up, industrial output is growing and consumer confidence has rebounded. But ‘Abenomics’ must start delivering higher wages and greater job security if it is to outlast the electoral cycle. The problem for the government is that, in order to retain the confidence of the money markets, it must attend to reform of state finances by pushing through an increase in the consumption tax next year. There is a risk that the tax hike could snuff out the flame of economic revival before tangible benefits reach the pay packets of Middle Japan. Navigating this unpopular reform will consume a significant portion of Abe’s political capital.
Then there is the issue of Japan’s strained relations with China. The dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands hangs over the relationship like a monsoon front. The first time he was the head of government Abe showed an unexpected capacity for rebuilding Sino-Japanese relations after a stormy period (under Koizumi). This time, however, he has a direct stake in the issue at the heart of the problem. Again, in venturing forward, he must risk political capital. There is a pressing need – and feelers have already gone out – for a leaders’ summit between Abe and the Chinese President Xi Jinping. But can there be a summit without some form of compromise, or at least an understanding, on the territorial issue? Will Abe lose favour with the right wing of his party if, in order to gain a summit, he, for instance, foregoes a visit to Yasukuni Shrine next month on or around the anniversary of the end of the war? There is little prospect of an early rapprochement with Beijing should he make such a visit, and the absence of progress on that front could start to spook the financial markets.
All of this suggests that constitutional change may have to take a back seat. If, however, Abe decides to concentrate his effort on this potent agenda item, by trying to persuade the New Komeito to lend support for amendments (starting perhaps with an amendment to make it easier to change the constitution), the government’s economic and foreign policy objectives could end up being sacrificed to an ideological battle of uncertain outcome. It is a delicate political judgment. Constitutional change has been a plank of LDP policy since the party was formed in 1955, and many in its ranks are keen to seize the opportunity to cast off the last vestige of Japan’s wartime defeat. The prize is just out of reach of a simple ‘grab and run’. In reaching out for the holy grail of his conservative forebears Abe’s real mettle as a politician and a leader may be tested to the limit.
Walter Hamilton is a former ABC Tokyo correspondent and author of “Children of the Occupation: Japan’s Untold Story”.