Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling coalition got a convincing victory on Sunday in an election for parliament's upper house, despite concerns about his economic policies and plans to revise the nation’s post-war pacifist constitution for the first time.
Abe's coalition and allies won two-thirds of the seats in parliament's upper house in a Sunday election. It is the first time when coalition and allies won two-thirds of the seats in parliament's upper house and gets supermajority.
That victory, with the ruling bloc's two-thirds majority in the lower house, opens the door to revising the constitution for the first time since its adoption after Japan's defeat in World War Two.
Such a majority could be surprising at the first glance, as Abenomics – prime minister’s main achievement – almost failed. Doubts about Abe's policies persist even though his ruling bloc won big in terms of seats. Many voters felt they had no other option, given memories of the main opposition Democratic Party's rocky 2009-2012 rule.
Katsuya Okada, head of the main opposition force, the Democratic Party, said on a TBS TV program that it is “regrettable” that the opposition camp was unable to prevent the pro-amendment supermajority.
“We couldn’t appeal to enough voters,” Okada said.
The DP said its primary goal was to prevent Abe’s camp from gaining a supermajority because that would lead to a fundamental shift in Japan’s postwar diplomacy.
But the public appeared unwilling to take another chance on the opposition Democratic Party, which stumbled badly in its last, rare stint in power, most notably in its response to the 2011 earthquake and Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Coming back to Abe’s main issues, they include Abenomics and constitutional reform.
Abenomics is a package of reforms that includes three so-called arrows: massive monetary stimulus, increased government spending and significant economic reforms. The LDP’s campaign strategy focused heavily on repeating that Abenomics is shoring up the economy, though Abe admitted in June that the recovery was only “halfway” complete. This came as he again postponed the second stage of the consumption tax hike. After the election is over, the government is expected to explain how it will account for the revenue shortfall as the public debt climbs.
Still Abe said Monday he would use his victory to push forward with his economic reform program along with further changes to his diplomatic policies.
According to Keith Henry, founder and representative director of Asia Strategy in Tokyo, the election underscores Japanese people's belief that there are no realistic alternatives to Abenomics for beating inflation.
“I want them to accelerate their economic policy to increase more jobs and improve social welfare,” said Akemi Machida, 29, who voted for Liberal Democratic candidates at a polling station in Sagamihara, a suburban town southwest of Tokyo. As for the opposition, she said, “There were no particular alternatives besides the L.D.P., whose policies sounded more convincing.”
According constitutional changes, it’s also a rough road to go. But the result also allows Abe to make a step forward towards constitutional amendments, a controversial issue that has divided the nation. Revisions require a two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament and a majority of votes in a public referendum.
"To realize revision of the constitution is my duty as LDP president. But it is not that easy, so I hope debate will deepen steadily, " Abe told a news conference.
Surveys show many voters are wary of changing the constitution's war-renouncing Article 9, which advocates see as the source of Japan's post-war peace and democracy. Conservatives see it as a symbol of humiliating defeat.
If taken literally, Article 9 bans the maintenance of armed forces. Successive governments have interpreted it to allow a military for self-defence, a concept Abe last year stretched to allow Japan's military to aid friendly nations under attack.
But convincing the Komeito party, the dovish junior partner in Abe's coalition, to agree would be challenging. The pro-revision camp might therefore tackle another amendment first.
One possibility would be to introduce a clause giving the government more powers in a national emergency, but critics say that would endanger civil rights.
Another option, floated by the Komeito, would be to add an environmental protection clause to the constitution. That less contentious step would nonetheless break the taboo on revision.
Many in the public have been critical of Prime Minister Abe and his party's desire to change the constitution to loosen restrictions over military activities. However, a more militarily assertive China and North Korea's continued nuclear development has made Japan's people nervous about regional security. The constitutional changes will be possible once a national referendum approves the parliament's proposal.
"The national referendum required to approve whatever the Diet [national parliament] decides will allow the Japanese people to finally determine for themselves their own constitution," Keith Henry, founder and representative director of Asia Strategy in Tokyo told.
On constitutional revision, Abe said Diet panels on the Constitution will decide how the charter should be revised, adding the issue will be put to a referendum afterward.
Instead, observers expect Abe to focus on establishing what is known as an “emergency situations clause,” which would allow the Cabinet to impose a state of emergency to protect people’s lives and assets during natural disasters and other situations. Calls emerged for such a clause after the March 2011 quake and tsunami.
Mr. Abe’s party, in a draft proposal of a revised Constitution, has also recommended amendments to the clause on freedom of speech and the press that could limit these rights in cases deemed dangerous to the public interest. Another proposal would expand emergency powers for the prime minister. Any revision would need to be approved by a majority in a public referendum.
Critics said Mr. Abe’s party deliberately played down its agenda on constitutional change. Some also accused the Japanese news media, particularly the public broadcaster, NHK, of conspiring to help the governing party and failing to air enough information about the issues at stake in the election.
The vote for stability at home, though, is likely to provoke unease across Asia, where memories of Japanese militarism in World War II endure and the prospect of a more assertive Japan will add to worries over China’s territorial ambitions and North Korea’s nuclear program.
So the push to ease the charter's constraints on the military operating overseas is bound to be opposed by China. China's official agency warned that the victory for Abe's party posed a danger to regional stability and a Foreign Ministry spokesman said it raised concern.
China's Xinhua news agency said the prospect was alarming. "With Japan's pacifist constitution at serious stake and Abe's power expanding, it is alarming both for Japan's Asian neighbors, as well as for Japan itself," Xinhua said.
"Japan's militarization will serve to benefit neither side".
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said it was totally understandable that countries in Asia like China were concerned about Japan's "political direction".
China hopes to see a Japan that is committed to peaceful development and speaks and acts cautiously on military and security matters, he added.
Experts agreed that building agreement in Japan on amending the constitution for the first time would be tough.
But while China is worrying whether it got a new threat, Kyodo News reported that, in response to Sunday’s poll results, Abe is planning a full-fledged reshuffle of his Cabinet as early as August.
His confidence is backed by Japanese in their teens and 20s. They voted for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition in Sunday’s parliamentary voting, according to exit polls, a sign that Mr. Abe’s hawkish security policy and the improved job market were well-received.
It was the first time, when 18- and 19-year-olds could vote in a national election after a 2015 legal change, and the first time since December 2014 that the nation had a chance to express its feelings on Mr. Abe’s “Abenomics” economic package. Maryna Nastina