Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pulled it off, again. After 2014, Shinzo Abe’s Liberal-Democratic Party of Japan (LDP) has won yet another snap election and unless he will be challenged internally in the months ahead, Abe will govern in Japan until 2021. Voters have voted for stability over change in Sunday’s Lower House elections and have seemingly chosen to forgive the old and new Prime Minister’s his alleged cronyism and near-obsession to revise the country’s war-renouncing constitution. Mr. Abe’s LDP and the LDP’s coalition partner, the Komei Party, won 313 seats in the 465-seats Lower House, holding on to the two-thirds majority the coalition had secured back in December 2014. The LDP alone won 283 seats, down from 284 it held before. The party that wanted to challenge Abe’s ruling coalition, the Kibo no To (Party of Hope) recently founded by former LDP defence minister and now Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, won only 49 seats. The even more recently founded (on October 2) Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP) for won 54 seats. The CDP is hence the largest opposition party and the real surprise of yesterday’s elections in Japan.
Obviously, Yuriko Koike gave herself very disappointed, albeit interestingly not from her base in Tokyo but from Paris, where she was attending a climate change conference in her capacity as Governor of Tokyo. When Abe called the snap elections in September, Koike seemed destined to lead a united opposition after the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) party declared to support her and her party. The DPJ split apart in late September, as the party’s lawmakers sought to run in the election on the Hope Party’s ticket. However, Koike’s chances of becoming the biggest opposition party took a beating when she imposed ‘ideological tests’ for DPJ members planning to run as candidates for her party, thereby excluding many of the DPJ’s left-leaning and liberal lawmakers. The excluded lawmakers in turn established the CDP under the leadership of Yukio Edano, former DPJ Chief Cabinet Secretary and Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry when the DPJ governed in Japan from 2009-2012. The election results show that Koike requesting former DPJ party members to pass an ill-fated ‘ideology purity test’ and sign up to her ideas on constitutional revision and revisionism (both of which are very close to the view Shinzo Abe’s has on both topics) turned out not to be only very short-sighted but also a recipe for electoral disaster.
Old and new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the meantime has now all the cards in place to push ahead with what he really wants to be remembered for: revising Japan’s war-renouncing Article using the LDP’s two-thirds majority in both chambers of the Japanese parliament. But not so fast. The Prime Minister would probably have started the process of constitutional revision much earlier if he had been confident enough that the majority of the Japanese electorate supports his plans get rid of constitutionally prescribed pacifism. Constitutional revision requires the approval of two-thirds of lawmakers in both chambers of the Japanese parliament and the approval by a simple majority in a nationwide referendum. Judging by recent opinion polls, less than 50% of the Japanese electorate is in favour of constitutional revision. On Sunday evening, Abe was trying to act on his best statesman behaviour saying that he wants to intensify the debate on constitutional revision to convince as many people as possible that revising pacifist Article 9 is necessary. However, the case of constitutional re-interpretation in 2014, at the time authorizing Japanese armed forces to execute the right to collective self-defence – which until then was deemed unconstitutional due to Article 9 - has very clearly demonstrated that Abe is prepared to ignore the opinion of experts and constitutional scholars he himself ironically appointed. At the time, the government pushed constitutional re-interpretation through the parliament and Abe made it clear that well-founded concerns about the legality of Japanese military executing the right to collective will not stand in his way of his vision of turning Japan from a ‘pacifist’ to a ‘normal’ country.
To be sure, Sunday’s elections were according to Abe not all about constitutional revision and building a legacy for himself. The election victory, Abe explained to the press late Sunday evening in Tokyo, provides the government with the necessary mandate to execute what he referred to as ‘strong diplomacy’ towards North Korea in support of U.S. President Trump’s North Korea strategy – in the U.S. case in essence a strategy not to talk to but talk about North Korea’s leader Kim Jung-un via Twitter. And what kind of ‘strong’ North Korea diplomacy did Abe mean anyway? Abe has over recent weeks and months more than once categorically excluded to want to talk to Pyongyang, including in an editorial for the New York Times on September 17.
While a majority of the Japanese electorate very clearly wanted the LDP to continue to govern in Japan, that does not necessarily mean that the same majority wants Abe to lead his party and the country. In fact, recent opinion polls have shown that a majority of the Japanese electorate does not - not least due to alleged cronyism and Abe providing his friends with expensive favours. Earlier this year, Abe was accused of using his influence to help a close friend to secure approval to open a private university and was also accused of having donated money to an ultra-nationalist primary school in Osaka that was built on government land that was sold to a close friend of Mr. Abe at a fraction of its value. Of course, Abe at the time denied all of the accusations, which in turn led his critics and the political opposition to suspect that he decided to call snap elections in order to avoid further uncomfortable questioning in the parliament. To be sure, dissolving the parliament as Abe did is not uncontroversial either and most Japanese constitutional scholars outside Abe’s circle of trust agree that the Prime Minister does not have the authority to dissolve the parliament whenever he is confronted with personal scandals and plummeting personal approval rates. Indeed, more than a few Japanese constitutional scholars called the parliament’s dissolution unconstitutional. The Japanese public did not seem to appreciate the dissolution of the parliament either: In one recent Kyodo News poll, 67 percent of respondents found they the parliament’s dissolution objectionable.
Prime Minister Abe is now advised to focus on what really matters to the Japanese electorate, which put him and the LDP back in office: structural and economic reforms as promised by Abe when he took power in 2012, sustainable policies dealing with Japan’s very rapidly ageing society and other bread-and-butter issues on the minds of ordinary Japanese people.
Axel Berkofsky, ISPI and Pavia University