National / Politics | ANALYSIS

Focus on economy, failure of opposition clears way for Abe's LDP in national elections

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

Since last year, media outlets have given much coverage to citizens’ groups opposing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s controversial security legislation.

Liberal intellectuals, too, have roundly criticized Abe and warn that his tenure could transform into an authoritarian regime.

But Abe’s ruling coalition has weathered these storms to emerge the victor in all four of the latest national elections over the past four years, most recently in Sunday’s Upper House election, and many are asking why.

Experts are blaming a dearth of alternative policy proposals from opposition parties on economic and welfare issues, which always top the priority list for general voters.

In particular, they say that the Democratic Party, the largest opposition force, has failed to present itself as a reliable alternative with concrete economic and welfare policy proposals.

“The ruling parties have prevailed in setting the agenda. They have put economic issues on the front burner, as opposed to constitutional issues,” said Yoshiaki Kobayashi, a professor of political science at Keio University.

Abe has been rightly regarded as an ardent advocate of revising the pacifist Constitution. But during election campaigns he has rarely discussed this goal, or security issues, focusing instead on the economic and welfare issues that surveys suggest are the main concern of voters.

In a June 24-26 poll by NHK, the issue of social security took center stage, with 29 percent of 2,044 respondents saying it was the most important issue when casting their ballot.

This was followed by economic policies at 26 percent and issues involving the consumption tax at 12 percent. Only 11 percent of respondents cited constitutional issues.

Abe has not specifically explained how he will achieve his key economic goals, which include a pledge to push up the nation’s gross domestic product to ¥600 trillion.

But in place of proposing viable policy alternatives of their own, the opposition parties have instead chosen simply to criticize the side effects of Abe’s economic policies, Kobayashi said.

“The opposition parties should have proposed economic and welfare policies that are backed with specific financial resources. But they haven’t,” he said.

Meanwhile, many opposition lawmakers have criticized the LDP’s moves toward revising the Constitution, in particular Article 9, and asked voters not to give them two-thirds of the 242 Upper House seats.

But such a plea is “difficult to understand” for voters, who do not regard such strategies as a realistic political agenda, said Jun Iio, a professor of political science at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.

In 2012, the LDP publicized its own draft constitution, in which most articles of the current charter, including the war-renouncing Article 9, were changed.

But coalition partner Komeito has yet to agree to any of the LDP’s proposals. Instead, many Komeito members are calling for the creation of a new article to guarantee citizens’ right to a healthy environment.

“Nothing has been agreed between the LDP and Komeito over constitutional revision yet. Even if pro-revision forces win two-thirds of the Upper House, it’s not clear yet if it will actually lead to initiation of a national referendum of constitutional revision,” Iio said.

Before taking power in 2009, the DP, when it was still the Democratic Party of Japan, had advocated some key economic polices to appeal to voters.

They included a public pension reform plan, drastic cuts to “unnecessary” government spending and increasing budget allocations for child-raising households.

But the party has abandoned its own pension reform plan after learning it is likely to immediately increase the financial burdens on everyone.

After taking power in 2009, DPJ Cabinet members did not drastically cut “unnecessary budgets,” as it had previously pledged, except for those of public works. On the contrary, some even tried to expand the budgets of their own ministries.

“The DP has yet to seriously reflect on the failures it made while it was in power. They haven’t made clear what actually went wrong,” Kobayashi said. So people’s distrust of the DP will not go away. They really doubt if the DP is capable of managing a government.”