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Abe camp faces little true opposition, also little mandate

by Reiji Yoshida

First In A Series

Gerald Curtis, a political science professor at Columbia University, has closely followed Japanese politics for over four decades. But this year, he said, he has seen something extraordinary: “It has been never easier” to predict the results of this month’s Upper House election.

“There is no way that (the ruling) Liberal Democratic Party will not enjoy a huge victory in this election,” Curtis told reporters Monday in Tokyo at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan.

Because of the “virtual implosion of (the) political opposition,” voters have no credible alternative parties to support in a national poll for the first time in postwar history, he said.

Official campaigning kicked off Thursday for the July 21 House of Councilors election, which will determine the political landscape for the next three years as well as the fate of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his administration.

The focus of public attention, however, is not on which party will triumph, but on how large a margin Abe’s LDP will win in the chamber and what will happen next. Public support for the Abe Cabinet has remained sky-high at around 60 percent, apparently thanks to his aggressive push for credit-easing measures and massive government spending centered on public works.

Experts say the electorate will likely hand the LDP-New Komeito ruling coalition, which already controls the more powerful Lower House, a comfortable majority, finally putting an end to the divided Diet that has stymied crucial legislation since 2007. A handsome victory could allow Abe to remain in office for three more years, because Lower House members’ terms, if the chamber isn’t dissolved, run until 2016.

Abe’s camp will not manage to win the two-thirds majority in the 242-seat Upper House that is required to propose a referendum to amend the pacifist Constitution, Curtis forecast.

“(The) Constitution is not going to be revised anytime soon. That’s another bold prediction that is pretty easy to make,” Curtis said. “It’s mathematically impossible.”

The ruling coalition had fielded 99 candidates by the time election offices stopped accepting registrations at 5 p.m.

Even if all those running on the LDP and New Komeito tickets are elected and join up with the ruling camp’s 58 seats in the chamber that are not up for grabs in this poll, the total would still fall far short of the two-thirds majority necessary to set in motion a constitutional amendment.

Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party), the third-largest opposition party, was once considered a potential ally that might help Abe to rewrite the Constitution. But the party’s popularity has plunged recently after co-leader Toru Hashimoto defended Japan’s wartime system of sexual slavery, severely denting Nippon Ishin’s image, and it is now unlikely to win enough seats to exert any significant clout in the chamber.

Meanwhile, the support rate for the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition group, has remained dismal following its defeat in December’s House of Representatives election, when voters pummeled it for failing to deliver on a number of key promises.

According to an NHK poll conducted last month, public support for the LDP stood at 41.7 percent and at 5.1 percent for New Komeito, while the DPJ only mustered 5.8 percent and Nippon Ishin just 1.5 percent.

Koichi Nakano, a professor of politics at Sophia University in Tokyo, largely agrees with Curtis’ observations.

He predicts the LDP will win 57 to 66 seats and New Komeito around 10, which would give the two parties a majority in both chambers of the Diet. But the results will be “far distant from the two-thirds majority required to revise the Constitution,” Nakano noted.

“It’s going to be a mixed blessing for Abe,” he said.

Further, the LDP’s competitive edge against rival parties might be more fragile than is apparent, Nakano argued, as it is not based on active support from voters.

When the LDP won back power from the DPJ in the Dec. 16 Lower House poll, it garnered 27.6 percent of the ballots cast in the proportional representation segment. But given the low turnout of 59.3 percent, that means Abe’s party was backed by only 16 percent of the total 104 million eligible voters nationwide, Nakano pointed out.

“Even if the LDP wins handsomely in the coming election, its actual core base will continue to be very, very small,” he said.

In the six months since his inauguration, Abe has kept a low profile on historical issues and diplomacy in Asia, focusing on stimulating the moribund economy.

Many observers, however, fear Abe may start demonstrating his true colors if he wins big in the Upper House poll, by starting to drive his agenda for rewriting the Constitution as well as past administrations’ official views and apologies over Japan’s wartime aggression and the “comfort women” it recruited for military brothels across Asia.

Curtis of Columbia University said he feels Abe is seemingly trapped in an “internal struggle” between his “head (and) heart” — or his rationalism as a pragmatic politician and his ego as an ardent nationalist.

As long as his pragmatism moderates his emotions, Abe will not stir up any major controversies, according to Curtis, but he may grow impatient after the election and historical revisionism could emerge as a significant risk for his administration.

Abe’s apparent frustration over having to conceal his true colors on historical issues, regardless of what views he may hold, was evident during a debate among party leaders at the Japan National Press Club on Wednesday.

When asked repeatedly by a reporter whether he believes Japan fought a war of aggression against China and imposed colonial rule on the Korean Peninsula, Abe staunchly refused to give a straight answer every time, saying such questions should be left to historians, not politicians.

“I’m not saying there was no aggression or colonial rule, but I’m not in a position to define (the meanings) of those terms,” is all Abe would say. “Basically, history should be handled by historians.”

One of Abe’s long-held, and widely known, wishes is to revise the postwar Constitution to alter the status of the Self-Defense Forces. The war-renouncing charter, drawn up by the Allied Occupation in the immediate aftermath of World War II, prohibits Japan from exercising force to settle international disputes and from maintaining any military force, despite the existence of the 59-year-old SDF, a potent military force.

Abe’s call for such revision, though it may appear moderate compared with other countries with regular standing militaries, has stirred fears that it could heighten tensions in Asia. But the prime minister and his aides appear to grasp the political risks of constitutional and historical issues, and have stuck to a pragmatic course so far.

“Under the current situation, the priority will be placed on the economy” rather than rewriting the Constitution, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, Abe’s right-hand man, said Tuesday while delivering a speech in Tokyo.

Abe had vocally called for amending Article 96 to lower the legal requirements for the Diet to propose a national referendum on altering the charter, but in the past month he has started toning down his remarks.

“We want to concentrate on (the economy) for the next three years,” Abe assured at a news conference June 26.

Constitutional and historical issues are not the only postelection problems Abe’s government will face. Economists warn that the effects of the prime minister’s “Abemomics,” a package of radical monetary, fiscal and growth-boosting policies, could soon lose steam, although some segments of the economy have benefited from the drastic credit-easing of the Bank of Japan that has seen the yen’s value plummet in recent months, driving up exporters’ profits.

In addition, Abe’s Cabinet will have to reach a difficult decision in October on whether to raise the consumption tax next year, a deeply and universally unpopular plan that the previous DPJ administration championed last fall and the LDP, then the largest opposition force, endorsed.

Hiking the levy could damage Abe’s support among voters and dampen domestic consumption, but his government could lose the markets’ trust if it postpones a critical decision many already consider long overdue.

When the contentious tax hike was enacted last year, it came with the proviso that the economy must show marked improvement before the levy goes up. Some indicators have been upbeat but none helping consumers.