Economics and finance, Government and governance, International relations, National security | Asia, East Asia

15 July 2016

Having now gained an Upper House majority, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will spend his political capital on economic rather than constitutional changes, Stephen R Nagy writes.

Japanese Prime Minster Shinzo Abe’s landslide victory in last weekend’s Upper House election will allow for more economic, political and foreign policy consistency and implementation. A steady political leadership under Abe’s LDP will allow for further economic reform and a reloading of Abenomics as recommended by the IMF, and for continued consistency in foreign policy within Northeast and Southeast Asia.

Liberal pessimists and many mass media outlets are stressing that Abe’s two-thirds coalition majority leaves him well placed to change Article 9 of the Constitution. This change would be transformative. The current Constitution forever eschews Japan’s right to use war, so a change would shift the country’s pacifist post-World War II identity to a country that claims to be pacifist but retains the right to use war as an instrument of the state.

But speculation around constitutional change does not seem to be supported by the explicit statements made by Abe and the LDP VP Masahiko Komura that changing Article 9 “will be difficult” (Abe) and “I don’t know about 10 years from now or however many years from now, but there is zero possibility (now) that Article 9 will be revised” (Komura).

Moreover, in polls conducted by the Yomiuri Shimbun in early June 2016, those running for election from the LDP’s Upper House stressed that economic policies rather than constitutional reform should be the ruling government’s number one priority. These sentiments were echoed in another poll conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun in which “economy and employment” was ranked as the top category of policy issues related to the upcoming House of Councillors election.

In light of public sentiment and the inclinations of elected Upper House members, economic policy rather than Constitutional change will be prioritised. Pre-election, the Abe government had already committed the government to spending more than 10 trillion yen (USD$100 billion) as stimulus on the Japanese economy. Abe will seize support from the Japanese business community and the endorsement from the IMF to double down on Abenomics in order to push through tough structural reforms while at the same time adopting some of the recommendations of the IMF such as income policies, labour market reform, subsidising young families who need child care, raising minimum wages, and supporting equal pay for equal work among others.

More on this: Abenomics needs people power | Bethany Schoer

On the regional front, Abe’s landslide victory means continuity for security strategies in the East China Sea and South China Sea. This will alleviate concerns from Washington and Southeast Asian countries that the past four years of proactive diplomacy will be replaced by a less engaged Japan. That would have left Southeast Asian countries in a vulnerable situation and disrupted the US’ strategy in the region. In short, Abe’s strong mandate means that Japan will continue its strategy of forming strategic partnerships in, but also outside, the region.

For China, the Abe government’s strong mandate brings both an opportunity and a challenge. There is little doubt that the Abe administration has great reservations about the future of Sino-Japanese relations. These reservations have led to proactive, values diplomacy towards Southeast Asia in particular but globally as well. From the Chinese point of view, this is an ABC (anybody but China) approach that aims to isolate China within the region. Abe’s stronger mandate could be seen as threatening and his current diplomacy in the region may be further enhanced.

In contrast, the mandate could also be seen by China as an opportunity to forge more transparent, trust-based relations with a known, right-of-centre nationalist politician that will be in power for at least two more years. A new or weakened leader in Japan may be less predictable in terms of foreign policy in the region and thus a challenge to Sino-Japanese relations.

Turning back to the domestic front, there are several take-home messages from the election concerning young voters and opposition parties. First, young voters chose stability and hope for the success of Abenomics, as evidenced in their turnout and support for the LDP. Second, as Tobias Harris showed in his post-election analysis, opposition parties have made some progress in terms of attracting more voters, however their one-issue campaign against Abe was not a convincing political alternative, nor did it provide a policy narrative able to withstand criticism against Abe’s steady leadership.

This policy deficit is equally vacuous in both the security and economic arenas and the end result was the fourth consecutive win by Abe’s LDP party at all levels of government. Until realistic and substantive policy differences emerge in the opposition camp that convincingly tackle Japan’s real and emerging security challenges in the East China Sea and South China Sea, as well as policies to create a self-sustaining Japanese economy able to manage population decline and an aging population, an anybody but Abe campaign will continue to be rejected by Japanese citizens in future elections.

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Nagy, Stephen R. 2016. "Abenomics Trumps Constitutional Reform - Policy Forum". Policy Forum.