National / Politics | 2019 Outlook

Japan already in for politically hectic 2019, but may see 'double election'

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Take a quick look at Japan’s political calendar for 2019. It’s shaping up to be one heck of a year.

There will be nationwide local elections in mid-April, which will be followed by Emperor Akihito’s historic abdication at the end of the same month and the arrival of a new era.

A little less than two months later, in late June, the nation will host the Group of 20 summit in Osaka for the first time ever, before political tensions soar once again later in the summer when a pivotal Upper House election is held. The nation will then brace for a consumption tax hike, slated for October, from the current eight to 10 percent.

Hectic? That’s for sure.

But experts say Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, determined to follow through on his longtime quest to revise the postwar Constitution, could make things even more complicated by engineering what is often dubbed a “double election” — where he strategically dissolves the Lower House to coincide with the pre-scheduled July Upper House poll.

The rationale is that surviving the Upper House election with the current two-thirds “supermajority” intact may be Abe’s only realistic shot at even attempting a constitutional amendment, and that he would be willing to pull out all the stops to maximize the chances of preserving this margin, political observers say.

“Abe has been at the top of the nation for so long now, and I think that if there is one possible way he could earn his place in history, it’s revising the Constitution,” Yoshiaki Kobayashi, a political science professor at Keio University, said. Winning the Upper House poll is Abe’s “last chance” to keep his grip on revising the charter, which has remained untouched since its inception more than 70 years ago, he added.

“To this end, I think he is willing to do everything in his power, including a double election.”

Because the Lower House election directly determines the party that will run the country, the electorate tends to become more serious about whom to vote for and, in turn, “reluctant to flirt with the opposition,” Kobayashi said.

This would increase the chance for Abe’s ruling bloc to win more votes if the Upper and Lower House elections are held simultaneously, he said.

In Japan, distrust of the opposition persists due to the now-defunct Democratic Party of Japan’s rocky three-year rule that, after a series of broken promises and haphazard diplomacy, ended in 2012.

In general, the Lower House election also makes it harder for opposition parties to collaborate with each other, he said.

Michael Cucek, an adjunct professor of politics at Temple University Japan, also said Abe would find it politically risky to call a snap election after the planned implementation of the unpopular sales tax rate increase from 8 to 10 percent in October.

“You don’t want to run a House of Reps (Lower House) election after doing that,” Cucek said of the hike. “There is a logic to that.”

As recently as last September, when Abe was re-elected the president of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party, the upcoming summer election wasn’t as integral as it is now to his amendment strategy.

Back then, he had an option, at least theoretically, of calling a national referendum — a mandatory step toward any change to the Constitution — before the July election, where he could lose the two-thirds majority currently held by pro-revision forces in the Upper House.

Forfeiting this majority would all but dash Abe’s hopes of ever revising the Constitution and possibly even make him a lame duck, because a national referendum cannot be initiated without approval from two-thirds of both houses of the Diet.

But observers point out the safest window for constitutional revision is now pretty much out of reach for Abe, and that he has to pin all his hopes on the likelihood — however uncertain — that the ruling coalition and other pro-revision forces will be able to retain their supermajority in the election.

Part of the reason Abe is unlikely to be able to call a referendum before July is that the LDP was downright unsuccessful in its attempt to present a formal proposal on how to amend the charter during this past extraordinary Diet session, thereby failing to galvanize a revision debate in the Diet as Abe had wanted.

This would leave the January-June regular Diet session as the only window of opportunity before the election to deepen discussions and hopefully call a referendum.

But such haste is unlikely to sit well with Komeito, the LDP’s coalition partner, which observers say wants to steer clear of anything sensitive that could compromise its standing in the April local elections.

Komeito has long officially advocated “pacifist” security policies, and any revision to the war-renouncing Article 9 could draw strong backlash from its supporters, although Abe has insisted that his revision proposal would only formalize the nominal legal status of the Self-Defense Forces.

A referendum, which could divide the nation in two, is also deemed unsuited to be proposed around the Emperor’s abdication, a solemn event that Yu Uchiyama, a professor of political science at the University of Tokyo, said “the right-wing support base of Abe believes should be conducted in a serene atmosphere.”

Analyst Tobias Harris of Teneo Intelligence, the political risk arm of the strategic consultancy, agrees.

“Even if the opposition parties weren’t dead set against a revision debate, I don’t see an amendment debate moving forward before the budget passes (in spring), at which point Komeito and public opinion would likely prevail against starting the process before local elections, abdication, and Upper House elections,” Harris said.

Meanwhile Abe’s ruling bloc is expected to face an uphill battle in the July election, where keeping its two-thirds majority in the Upper House should be difficult.

That is partly because lawmakers seeking re-election this time around are those elected in the summer of 2013, when the LDP racked up 65 seats, a record under the current electoral system. At the time, the party was riding high under Abe’s fresh leadership.

Emulating the victory could prove to be difficult given the results of the previous Upper House election in 2016, where the party took just 55 seats.

The election landscape is further complicated by the fact the upcoming nationwide local polls in the spring, which take place every four years, occur the same year as the Upper House election, a situation that happens once every 12 years that history shows tends to take a toll on the LDP.

Pundits have pointed out many members of the LDP’s local chapters, having just won their own seats, burn out and show less dedication to their party’s campaigning for the summer poll when this pairing happens.

In the Upper House election, “they could seriously lose any chance of a two-thirds majority,” Cucek of Temple University said, citing “bad press” the government recently received over an immigration bill it bulldozed through the Diet and the land reclamation work it initiated to relocate a key U.S. base in Okinawa, despite staunch local resistance.

“That kind of authoritarian behavior will most likely shift more than a few votes against the government, so much so that there is a good chance that they will lose the two-thirds majority,” he said.

This prospect of an uphill battle, observers say, could further motivate Abe to resort to the controversial political maneuvering of calling a snap election to coincide with the Upper House poll.

Some speculate that Abe may go ahead and call a snap election under the pretext of demanding a public mandate on the rumored policy of Japan settling for the return of just two of the four disputed northern islands from Russia — instead of winning back all of them — as a way to sign a peace treaty with the former wartime foe.

“I think it’s very well likely that Abe will dissolve the Lower House and go for a double election under the name of seeking a referendum on his Russia policy,” Uchiyama of Tokyo University said.

“If the pro-revision forces lose their two-thirds majority, Abe could become a lame duck, a prospect that he might fight against by using a double election to make the Upper House poll more winnable. It’s a gamble, but I think it’s the kind of risk that Abe, when push comes to shove, is willing to take.”

Kobayashi of Keio University is skeptical that the return of two islands — which he said is a compromise that could draw mixed reactions — will be a good enough reason for Abe to forge ahead with the Lower House election.

“I think the likeliest scenario is that the LDP will submit its amendment proposal to the Diet sometime before July and fight the Upper House election with it, in the hopes that it can survive the poll and move toward calling a referendum after fall,” he said.

The LDP, Kobayashi said, will likely pepper the proposal with something fairly palatable for the public, such as enshrining the importance of education, to increase support from voters. The lead-up to summer, he added, is expected to witness a surge in last-minute purchases by consumers ahead of the October sales tax hike, which means the economy will likely be in good shape.

“If those aren’t still enough to sway the public sentiment in favor of the LDP, yes, I think it’s possible that Abe will go for a double election.”