After a sweeping election victory last month, Shinzo Abe was formally re-elected prime minister on Wednesday, with his focus now shifting to an imminent visit by the U.S. president and his own longtime dream of revising the pacifist Constitution.
After being voted in as the nation’s 98th prime minister, Abe reappointed the same Cabinet team he had billed as a “professional bunch who gets the job done” in August.
In a special Diet session convened Wednesday, Abe was elected with 312 votes, while Yukio Edano, leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, finished second at 60, followed by Shu Watanabe from Kibo no To (Party of Hope) at 51, according to Kyodo News. Although Kibo no To’s leader is Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, she cannot be elected because she’s not a Diet member.
Following criticism from the opposition bloc, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito pair agreed to keep the Diet session open until early December and have Abe deliver a policy speech.
The compromise was aimed at appeasing a frustrated opposition, which had slammed the ruling camp’s initial plan to hold a Diet session lasting just eight days — a move the opposition claimed would allow Abe to avoid questions over two favoritism scandals that significantly eroded his support rate earlier in the year.
With Wednesday’s re-election, Abe’s immediate focus now turns to Donald Trump’s forthcoming visit to Tokyo, which starts on Sunday.
Trump’s visit is being touted as a “perfect opportunity” to demonstrate Tokyo’s watertight alliance with Washington and a chance to reaffirm their joint commitment to maximizing pressure on nuclear-armed North Korea.
Abe will also waste no time in working toward compiling by year-end an economic package worth ¥2 trillion — a key pledge in his campaign for the Oct. 22 election — to bolster education and social security programs, including free day care and kindergarten services and support for young people in poverty.
In the longer term, the focus will be on how aggressively Abe is willing to push for his political goal of revising Japan’s postwar Constitution.
The October election gave the ruling Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito bloc a two-thirds supermajority in the Lower House. That, together with control of a similar share of the Upper House, allows Abe to call the first ever referendum on revising the U.S.-drafted charter.
Combined with opposition parties in favor of constitutional amendment — including Kibo no To and Ishin no To (Japan Innovation Party) — the pro-revision forces in the Lower House now control a whopping 371 seats, accounting for nearly 80 percent of the 465-seat chamber.
Nonetheless, timing for a constitutional amendment could prove tricky.
The next Upper House election, scheduled for the summer of 2019, will naturally discourage the ruling coalition from risking any politically sensitive endeavors in the months before.
But waiting until after the poll could also be a gamble, as there is no guarantee that the current two-thirds supermajority would be retained in the election.
These factors suggest Abe is likely to stick to the initially rumored timeline of kicking off a referendum by the end of next year’s ordinary legislative session, which usually convenes in January.
Since the public is still divided over whether to revise the Constitution, Abe may for now postpone formalizing the status of the SDF and prioritize less contentious issues, such as having the Constitution guarantee free education and better define Japan’s decentralization, said Tomoaki Iwai, a professor of political science at Nihon University.
In an NHK survey in March, 57 percent of respondents opposed revising Article 9, while 25 percent supported such a move.
That the CDP, which opposes Abe’s bid to change the charter, won enough votes to become the biggest opposition party means the prime minister is likely to tread carefully in revising Article 9, the professor added.
“It is imperative that Abe calls the referendum based on a wide range of support from opposition parties. Such broad support will make his proposal look more acceptable for the public and ultimately help him survive the vote,” Iwai said.
This means cooperation from the CDP, in addition to pro-revision opposition parties, is almost unavoidable, he said.
“Abe’s real wish is to change Article 9, but there are other ways he can still have the honor of being remembered as the first prime minister who revised the charter,” Iwai said.