In Sunday’s Upper House election, Japanese voters expressed their dissatisfaction with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party, which has been embroiled in a pension-records fiasco, political-funds scandals and gaffes by Cabinet ministers. The votes have made the opposition Democratic Party of Japan the No. 1 party in the Upper House. The massive defeat will make it much more difficult for the ruling coalition to pass bills in the Diet and will force it to compromise with the opposition on important issues. Although Mr. Abe has declared that he will not step down, it is clear that rough times await him.
The DPJ’s election victory is a political boon to its leader Mr. Ichiro Ozawa, who vowed to “stake his political life on the Upper House election.” His party’s campaign motto was “The people’s life should be the No. 1 matter.” In his campaign, Mr. Ozawa claimed that under the ruling coalition’s program emphasizing “reform and economic growth,” only the strong have survived, and the weak and the rural regions have been discarded, causing serious social divides. Mr. Ozawa’s observations and proposals struck the right note with many voters. Remarkably, his party won an overwhelming victory in the one-seat constituencies in rural and depopulated areas, a traditionally LDP stronghold. Mr. Abe tried to sell economic growth to the voters, but the election results underline a need for him to rethink his basic approach.
In its campaign, the DPJ proposed providing each child with an allowance of 26,000 yen a month until he or she graduates from middle school, and paying farmers the difference between the production costs of main crops and their market prices so that small farmers can continue to work in agriculture. The party also proposed integrating various pension schemes and using all the revenues from the consumption tax to pay the basic portion of the pensions.
With an increase in the DPJ’s party strength, however, its political responsibility has also grown. It must make efforts to give credibility to its policy proposals by seriously addressing the question of how to secure the financial resources needed to carry out its proposals. If the party focuses too much on political maneuvers aimed at further weakening the LDP, it will lose the people’s trust. The DPJ must hone its policy-formation ability and strengthen its local political bases.
Apart from the postelection difficulties the ruling coalition will face in the Diet, the election outcome also means a setback, at least temporarily, to Mr. Abe’s goal of revising the Constitution. Although the election campaign by both the LDP and the DPJ focused on issues closely related to the people’s welfare, such as pensions and how to share the fruits of economic growth, the LDP’s campaign pledge placed top priority on constitutional revision. If the LDP had won in the election, it could have claimed that the voters have endorsed its plan to revise the nation’s basic law.
Although Mr. Abe did not elaborate on constitutional revision, his thoughts on this vital issue can be discerned from the LDP’s 2005 draft constitution, which called for turning the Self-Defense Forces into full-fledged armed forces, and the fact that Mr. Abe pushed the revision of the Fundamental Law of Education to instill patriotism in children and strengthen state control of education.
Now that the national referendum law for constitutional revision is in force, the Diet can initiate the revision process with the support of two-thirds or more of Diet members after three years. But because the LDP had failed to gain the DPJ’s cooperation in passing the referendum bill and the opposition camp now has a majority in the Upper House, it is unlikely that the LDP can start the process to revise the Constitution. Mr. Abe’s grand but dubious political goal of achieving a “departure from the postwar regime” is stalled for the time being.
Voters clearly did not forget the issue of money and politics, which led to the suicide of former farm minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka. Likewise, they remembered gaffes by Cabinet members, including former defense minister Fumio Kyuma’s remarks that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki “could not be helped.” The voters saw Mr. Abe’s lack of political leadership in his handling of these issues. The prime minister and his Cabinet would do well to keep this in mind.
Although Mr. Abe has refused to resign to take responsibility for the ruling coalition’s devastating defeat, voices inside and outside the LDP will likely call on him to do so. The sad irony is that there seem to be few politicians in the LDP who can fill even his shoes.
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