National / Politics

Abe-Ishiba debate highlights candidates’ lack of concrete plans to tackle fundamental problems

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Last week saw Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and ex-Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba engage in a battle of words over key policies in the run-up to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s presidential election on Thursday.

While these debates have helped illustrate the candidates’ differences, both have been rather mum on how to overcome some of the most fundamental problems gnawing at Japan, including its tattered fiscal health.

The Constitution

Both Abe and Ishiba were originally vocal backers of radical constitutional amendment, in particular for war-renouncing Article 9, which bans Japan from possessing a military. But they insist on different approaches and priorities in making the revision.

Abe is now calling for a moderate revision that would add an “explicit” paragraph to Article 9 to formalize the legal status of the Self-Defense Forces and put an end to the long-continuing academic debate on their constitutionality.

The unspecified graph would not change the substance of the SDF’s military operations or the strict legal restrictions imposed on them, Abe insists.

He has also urged his LDP to submit its own proposals for revision to the extraordinary Diet session expected to be convened this fall.

Ishiba, in the meantime, is arguing that the Diet should not rush to revise Article 9 as Abe is calling for. The Diet should propose such a revision only after gaining “sufficient understanding” from the voters regarding constitutional issues, and now is not the time, Ishiba says.

Instead Ishiba has maintained the Diet should prioritize the revision of other articles to enable the central government to declare a state of emergency in the event of natural disasters and eliminate Upper House electoral districts that combine more than one prefecture.

Originally, Ishiba had called for the deletion of the second paragraph of Article 9, which reads “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.”

His long-held original argument also promoted the idea of adding sentences that would allow Japan to own its own military forces to defend itself.

Scholars argue that Ishiba’s original proposal could allow Japan to fully use the right of collective self-defense, or the right to attack a third country assaulting an ally even if Japan itself is not under attack, an option presumably aimed at aiding Japan’s main ally the United States.

But ahead of the Sept. 20 vote, Ishiba has put his own ideas on the back burner. He is apparently trying to garner support from rank-and-file LDP members, many of whom attach greater importance to regional economic issues rather than constitutional revision.

Abe himself was once a vocal advocate for radically revising Article 9 in a manner similar to Ishiba’s original proposal. But he is now advocating a rather moderate revision that is politically more palatable both to voters and Komeito, the LDP’s coalition partner.

The Constitution can only be revised if approved by a two-thirds vote in both houses of the Diet and a simple majority in a national referendum.

In Friday’s televised debate at the Japan National Press Center, Abe sought to portray himself as a pragmatic leader who can get the job done, obliquely criticizing Ishiba for championing an unrealistic amendment strategy.

“Politicians are not scholars or pundits. It’s not like we can always go about spouting things that theoretically make sense, but we sometimes need to be realistic and focus on delivering results,” Abe said in an apparent dig at Ishiba’s original idea.

“I think it’s the responsibility of the LDP president to change the clause in such a way that can formulate sufficient consensus within the ruling coalition first.”

Fiscal health, social security

Both Abe and Ishiba agree that the consumption tax should be raised to 10 percent from the current 8 percent in October next year as scheduled.

But conspicuously absent from their jousting is a blueprint for restoring debt-ridden Japan’s fiscal health, which is the worst among the major economies.

Abe’s administration has already decided to divert much of the added revenue from next year’s consumption tax hike to education instead of paying down the snowballing public debt.

On Friday, Abe reiterated the government’s oft-delayed goal of achieving a primary budget balance surplus, saying “concrete plans” have been underway to meet the target by 2025. The primary balance is a key barometer of fiscal health, referring to a condition in which the government can fully cover policy expenditures, excluding debt-servicing costs, with its own tax revenues.

“Based on these plans, we will ensure to realize healthier public finances,” Abe said without spelling them out.

Ishiba, too, has been short on details, specifying no numerical target or deadline for rehabilitating Japan’s finances.

He has instead focused on advocating the establishment of what he vaguely calls a national “council” to discuss Japan’s ballooning social security costs.

“I will set up a council where people representing all fields such as medicine, nursing care, pension, child-rearing and female empowerment can engage in open, candid discussions about how they can realize their own happiness,” Ishiba said.

On social security, Abe has emphasized that he will undertake a three-year reform in anticipation of what the government has dubbed a “100-Year Life” — in which citizens work well beyond the current retirement age. Among ideas raised by Abe is increasing the retirement age to above 60, encouraging mid-career recruitment and enabling the elderly to receive pension payouts after they hit 70.

Abenomics

Abe has rattled off a list of what he claims are the achievements of Abenomics, his economic growth policies. These include a weakened yen, fewer corporate bankruptcies and the highest job availability in decades.

“After 20 years of deflation, we’ve finally come to a point where we can say we’re no longer in deflation. It has been an onerous task, but we’ve accomplished it nonetheless,” Abe claimed.

Ishiba acknowledges the role that Abenomics has played in increasing employment and boosting corporate earnings. But he also points out that Japan’s “wage share” in fiscal 2017 was the lowest in 43 years — suggesting corporate profits have not been duly allocated to workers’ wages and that personal spending remains sluggish despite improved business performance.

As an alternative to Abenomics, Ishiba calls for better revitalizing regional economies — his strong suit. In particular, he says the nation should work on “maximizing the potential” of small firms as well as rural farmers and fishers.

Political leadership

Ishiba has been indirectly taking a swipe at Abe’s strongman leadership style, which he suggests has led to the nation’s top-notch bureaucrats kowtowing to politicians rather than prioritizing the best interests of the public.

To this end Ishiba says he will carry out a “100-day plan” to shake up the personnel system of the elite government bureaucrats, an initiative that is widely viewed as a jab at the twin favoritism scandals that have plagued the Abe administration. The catchphrase for his campaign, “fair and honest,” is taken as another apparent dig.

“The government needs to create a system where bureaucrats are truly motivated to dedicate themselves to working for the people. Too much interference by politicians will only make bureaucrats cower, and prevent them from working for the public,” Ishiba told a news conference when the race kicked off last week.

Abe, meanwhile, defended his style, saying there is “nothing wrong with politicians taking the initiative” over bureaucrats. In the old days, he said, the lack of politicians’ leadership often resulted in each ministry focusing on preserving its own vested interests rather than working toward policy objectives set forth by the prime minister.

“It used to be all about ministry interests, not national interests,” Abe said.

“I will sincerely accept all kinds of criticism leveled at me, do soul-searching, correct myself where necessary and run my next administration in a humble and polite manner,” Abe told a gathering of his fellow LDP lawmakers last week in response to the favoritism allegations.