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

7 July 2016

Japan heads to the polls on Sunday for Upper House elections that are predicted to deliver a majority to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Stephen Nagy looks at how big that majority might be and what he will do with it.  

The Upper House election in Japan on July 10 is less of a referendum on Abenomics and the 2015 Collective Security Bill and more about the practice of democracy in a single party-dominated democratic system.

The lack of policy differentiation let alone real policy alternatives to the current government by opposition parties; political stability under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe since his election in December 2012; and a series of exogenous shocks such as: Brexit, the Chinese economic slowdown and the 2 July Bangladesh terrorist incident in which seven Japanese nationals died, will push voters to support Abe’s LDP party as average Japanese voters perceive it offers “stable” and “predictable” leadership in a growingly chaotic world.

In the context of the Upper House election, opposition parties including the Japanese Communist Party, the Democratic Party, the Social Democratic Party and Seikatsu no To (People’s Life Party) have taken an ABA (anything but Abe approach).

Opposition parties and critics of Abe argue that his term in office has been marred by ineffectual economic policies under the rubric of Abenomics, and a march towards militarism with the signing of the September 2015 Collective Security Bill, the strengthening of the US-Japan alliance, a series of security partnerships in Southeast Asia and a proactive policy to export arms to like-minded nations. Furthermore they argue that Abe’s election campaign is a subterfuge to realise his long-term dream of revising Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution – the clause that outlaws war as a means to settling international disputes, that came into effect following World War Two.

More on this: The South China Sea's emerging security alliance | Ernest Bower

Less acerbic parties and coalition parties such as the Komeito, Osaka Ishin no Kai and Nihon no Kokoro wo Taisetsu ni Suru Kai (Party for Japanese Kokoro) view Abe’s tenure as Prime Minister as less than ideal in terms of the economic trajectory, however they demonstrate more outright or tepid support (Komeito) for security legislation in the context of an assertive China in the South and East China Seas. Having supported the Collective Security Bill for a final count of 148 in favour and 90 against, the LDP, Komeito and the three minor parties are on the same page in regards to security.

A victory in the Upper House elections by Abe’s LDP party is not in doubt. What remains less tangible is how large his victory will be. Achieving a two-thirds majority on 10 July would enable Abe to be less restricted by the Komeito’s pacifist inclinations and allow for a vote by the Upper House as to whether or not a referendum could be held on changing Article 9 of the Constitution. This result remains a high probability owing to an impotent opposition without a clear policy alternative.

The constitutional question is controversial. Any change would be the first since it was put into place. Abe has explicitly called for amendments, with his party’s draft alterations to the text to specify “that Japan possesses the right to self-defense and that an organisation will be set up for self-defense.” This change of Article 9 would be a paradigm shift in terms of Japan’s post-WWII pacifist identify. It would transform the region’s security architecture and it be what Andrew Oros articulates as the normalising of Japan’s security structure.

Despite a two-thirds majority in the Upper House, constitutional revision is unlikely for several reasons. First, at the citizen level, pacifist norms are widespread and much nuanced. Voters view defence of Japan and her territories as common sense, especially as China pursues a more assertive stance in the East and South China Seas, whereas overseas dispatch for the purpose of security cooperation is wearily looked upon. Second, within the LDP itself there are both conservative and liberal factions both in favour and against constitutional revision. Bridging this division will be a challenge to Abe. Third, and in relation to this challenge of bridging those both pro- and against revision, law makers are interested in prioritising economic growth and a bolder commitment to structural reform instead of wasting valuable political capital on changing Article 9 of the Constitution. For many, they already recognise the reality that the Constitution has been reinterpreted many times in the post WWII period by successive PMs and that changing or eliminating Article 9 is not necessary to enable Japan’s military.

More on this: Abenomics needs people power | Bethany Schoer

With a two-thirds majority in the Upper and Lower Houses, rather than wasting political capital on Article 9 revision Abe has the opportunity to more forcefully push his economic agenda which was recently lauded by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as a policy approach that needs to be “reloaded” and more fully committed to. The IMF’s detailed suggestions to broaden and deepen the successes of the currently stalled economic policies can be leveraged as 外圧/gaiatsu (outside pressure) to achieve sustainable economic growth.

In the realm of internationals relations, a strong showing in the Upper House elections has significant consequences for regional security dynamics as well. A consolidation and continuation of LDP governance under Abe inculcates predictability in foreign policy in the region. For China, a poor showing by Abe may elicit a return to nationalism-based domestic politics as characterised by his visit to Yasukuni Shrine in December 2013, or more overtly courting far right organisations such as the Japan Conference. This would not be good for Sino-Japanese relations, as it would likely elicit a growth in nationalism in China as well.

For Southeast Asia, a strong showing by Abe and the LDP would be welcomed as it would be a continuation of Japan’s “proactive pacifism” that has benefited the region in the developmental, economic and security realms.

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Nagy, Stephen R. 2016. "Majority Muscle In Japan - Policy Forum". Policy Forum.