National / Politics

Abe looks to secure voter mandate for 'stability' in Upper House vote as Diet session wraps up

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Wednesday the upcoming Upper House election is first and foremost about seeking a voter mandate for “political stability,” which he says he has brought into Japan’s politics after years marked by rapid succession of different prime ministers.

Abe’s remark came at the end of the Diet session, its closure all but ruling out the possibility of him dissolving the Lower House for a snap election to take place simultaneously with the Upper House poll — a political maneuver dubbed a “double election.” On Wednesday the government formally determined that the Upper House election will take place July 21, preceded by campaigning that would kick off July 4.

“The biggest issue to be debated at the upcoming election is whether we want to accelerate reforms befitting a new era under political stability, or slide back into that era of chaos,” Abe told a news conference in Tokyo.

He acknowledged that the period plagued by the high turnover of prime ministers was caused by his first, short-lived administration’s crushing defeat in the Upper House election in 2007.

“It was my fault,” he said with chagrin, adding that he “can’t regret enough” his disastrous performance 12 years ago.

All eyes are on whether Abe will be able to maintain the current two-thirds supermajority controlled by the ruling bloc and its allies — a key threshold needed to initiate a referendum on revising the post-war Constitution, Abe’s long-held ambition — in the July election.

Speaking to reporters, Abe expressed dissatisfaction with what he called the opposition parties’ refusal to kick-start discussions on constitutional revision in the Diet, noting that he wants to ask voters “whether they are really fine with the current situation where we can’t even start discussing the topic” in the upcoming election.

As he reflected on the latest Diet session, Abe in particular boasted the enactment of bills that would make preschool education free for all children between 3 and 5 years old from October, and ban the physical punishment of children by parents.

The six-month session was also frequently distracted by persistent rumors he might stage a double election. Some pundits had said such a move could have worked to Abe’s advantage by catching an ever-fragmented opposition at its weakest, leaving them hard-pressed to unite and hammer out a decent electoral strategy to counter his mighty ruling coalition.

But in the end, Abe decided against taking that gamble. His restraint appears to have been at least partially motivated by the emergence of a last-minute controversy over a report issued by a council of the Financial Services Agency that cast doubt on the sustainability of the pension system, said Yoshiaki Kobayashi, a political science professor at Keio University.

The report caused public anxiety by revealing an estimate that suggested an elderly couple living to the age of 95 may see a shortfall of ¥20 million if they relied solely on public pension benefits to cover their living expenses after retirement. The Abe government scrambled to dissociate itself from the report and cast doubt on its accuracy, with Finance Minister Taro Aso even refusing to accept it.

That said, even before the pension blunder there had been “guarded optimism that the (ruling bloc) might be able to get away with a minor loss of Upper House seats even if it doesn’t stage a double election,” Kobayashi said, given that approval ratings for the Abe Cabinet had been buoyed by the festive unveiling of a new imperial era name in April.

Going ahead with a double election would also have risked provoking a backlash from coalition partner Komeito, which could have found its organizational wherewithal tested by trying to survive a double election having only just mobilized staff to prepare for local unified elections in April.

The pension controversy, then, pushed what was already a perilous idea beyond the threshold of acceptable risk for Abe’s odds of survival, Kobayashi said. On Wednesday, Abe dodged the question of whether the pension issue had played a part in him deciding against dissolving the Lower House.

How much of an impact the furor over the pension report will have on the Upper House poll remains to be seen, but it’s a sensitive issue that bodes ill for Abe nonetheless.

Not only do social security issues, including pensions, tend to top a list of voter concerns ahead of any election, but the latest controversy has been described by some as eerily reminiscent of the 2007 “missing pension” scandal that played a major part in ending Abe’s first stint in power.

At the time, public outrage erupted over botched government record-keeping that left millions of pension premium payments unaccounted for.

But it’s not yet clear whether the latest resurgence of pension concerns will prove to be such a generous gift to the opposition.

A recent Asahi Shimbun opinion poll pointed to enduring solid support for the LDP even among an electorate concerned with the pension issue, with 35 percent of those who said they “care about” the issue still expressing their intention to vote for the LDP, versus 16 percent who said they would vote for the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, the biggest opposition party.

Kobayashi said that unless opposition parties manage to present a clear policy alternative to the current pension system, rather than simply criticizing the government’s handling of it, chances are slim that they will be able to turn the situation around.

At the moment, approval ratings for the CDP remain as low as ever, at 5.7 percent, while the Democratic Party for the People struggles with 1.1 percent, the Japanese Communist Party with 3.7 percent and the Social Democratic Party with 0.5 percent, according to a survey released by public broadcaster NHK on Monday. The LDP stood at 31.6 percent.

“While the ‘missing pension scandal’ was fundamentally about the government being at fault for mishandling key records, the latest pension controversy is not simply a case where the government botched something but one where both political sides are expected to engage in real, policy-oriented discussions about the sustainability of a system,” Kobayashi said.

Opposition parties struggled to maintain momentum throughout this Diet session.

That was partly because the government, apparently wary of any bad press ahead of the elections, submitted few controversial bills. The ruling bloc have also rejected calls from the opposition to convene the budget committee since April, thus dodging what often involves daylong, televised sessions where Abe is grilled over various missteps as well as his policies.

The gaffe-driven resignations in April of deputy land minister Ichiro Tsukada and Olympics minister Yoshitaka Sakurada didn’t see much scrutiny in the Diet, either.