SEOUL – After cycling through seven leaders in seven years — many of whom squandered their support months, if not weeks, into their terms — Japan is about to break free from its most vexing political pattern. It’s on the verge of stability.
Polls suggest that Sunday’s House of Councilors election will provide an overwhelming victory to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, handing right-wing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe a chance to become the nation’s most transformative leader since the collapse of the bubble economy two decades ago.
Last December’s election for the more powerful House of Representatives brought the LDP and Abe into power. But this election — for 121 of the 242 seats in the Upper House — will give the party a chance to claim majorities in both Diet chambers, breaking the long-standing “twisted legislature” that slowed down or blocked even modest policy proposals.
Analysts say Abe, once his party is firmly in power, will have a mandate unmatched by anyone since Junichiro Koizumi left office in 2006.
But Abe’s ambitions are greater, and his challenges bigger, those analysts point out. Japan is locked into a territorial struggle with China over the Senkaku Islands, sapped by energy shortages while its nuclear reactors remain offline and weighted down by massive government debt.
For policymakers in Washington, as well as those in neighboring Asian countries, Abe’s increased power is welcome so long as he focuses mainly on reviving the economy.
But Abe, whose grandfather was arrested but never charged as a war criminal, has deeply rooted nationalist feelings and a track record of playing down Japan’s atrocities before and during World War II.
In the past months, he has kept his personal views largely bottled up. But some opposition lawmakers fear an emboldened Abe could speak more openly about his revisionist beliefs, enraging China and South Korea and aggravating the United States, which is pressing Japan to play nice with its neighbors.
In his seven months in power, Abe has tried foremost to re-energize the nation’s long-stagnant economy, doling out stimulus funds while successfully pressuring the Bank of Japan to loosen its purse strings. Those tools have helped drive up stocks on the Nikkei 225 index about 60 percent, while leaving Japan’s major corporations flush with profits.
But economists and government officials in Tokyo say the revival will only be sustainable if Abe can carry through with broad economic reforms, including difficult changes in agriculture, the social security system and the medical industry. The prime minister has already unveiled one starter plate of ideas, but markets were underwhelmed.
“Some gutsier initiatives will probably be required to think, ‘Aha, he’s really serious about this reform,’ ” said Sheila Smith, a senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think tank.
Until recently, Abe seemed among the most unlikely candidates to provide Japan with stability. He washed out in his first stint as prime minister, a woeful one-year term from September 2006 in which he pursued a string of nationalist pet projects that polls suggest the country had little appetite for. Abe eventually resigned because of a bowel ailment.
In 2007, in the middle of Abe’s first term, the LDP lost a majority of its seats in an Upper House election, a setback from which the party only fully recovered in December’s Lower House poll. With the two Diet chambers dominated by different parties, a series of prime ministers struggled to gain support or pass legislation.
Just as important, the frequent replacement of foreign and defense ministers short-circuited the country’s efforts to build ties with its neighbors and its biggest postwar ally, the United States.
“That defeat (in 2007) was the start of it all,” Abe said in a news conference in late June. “(Japan’s) politics has been wandering, with the prime minister changing to one person and then another year after year — myself included — and Japan’s national strength came to wane substantially.”
After Sunday, it might be three years before the country holds another parliamentary election, and Abe might go just as long without a challenge to his leadership. Still, he won’t have carte blanche.
One of Abe’s fundamental goals is to turn Japan into what he calls an “ordinary country” — one with a standing military that has purposes beyond self-defense. But to loosen most of the major restrictions on the Self-Defense Forces, Abe must revise the pacifist Constitution — a contentious move in a nation with powerful memories of its past militancy.
New Komeito, the LDP’s junior coalition ally, wants the Constitution to stay as is. And among the public, 56 percent still oppose any amendments, although that opposition is slowly eroding, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center.
For lawmakers, changing the Constitution would require a profound consensus — a two-thirds agreement in both houses of the Diet, under current regulation.
The bar is so high that Abe has talked about first altering Article 96, which stipulates the process for constitutional revision. Abe would prefer a simply majority in both houses for any change. But even that potential move has proven controversial, and Abe has said little about it on the campaign trail.
Abe’s approach may all hinge on the precise number of seats the LDP wins Sunday, some analysts say.
The LDP-New Komeito ruling coalition need 63 seats combined to gain an Upper House majority, which is considered a near certainty. But if the LDP captures 72 seats on its own, it will have a majority even without its partner, easing the path to any constitutional changes.
The prime minister has an approval rating near 70 percent, but that is likely to dip, observers say, if he pushes an agenda that isn’t seen as nearly as essential as his economic policy.
Over the past seven months, Abe and the LDP have stood united in focusing on the House of Councilors poll, Kochi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University, told reporters during a recent presentation in Tokyo.
“This is one big goal they had,” Nakano said. “Once that’s gone, that can very easily lead to lack of discipline.”