Commentary / Japan

Shinzo Abe's political agenda

It is hard to understand why Prime Minister Shinzo Abe needed to dissolve the Lower House, as he did last week. Even top leaders of his Liberal Democratic Party initially appeared to be baffled. “To be honest, I feel it a bit strange that even though the prime minister has made no such statement, the atmosphere [for dissolving the Lower House] is rapidly building up following the report by a certain member of the media,” Shigeru Ishiba, minister in charge of regional revitalization, wrote in his blog.

Deputy LDP chief Masahiko Komura said Abe was dissolving the chamber for a snap election “just to make sure” (nenno tame), as he guessed at the prime minister’s intentions behind the move. In short, LDP leaders other than Abe himself were finding it hard to identify major campaign issues worthy of holding a general election.

Now that the economic slump has been found to have been more serious than forecast, if Abe really wants to pull the nation out of deflation he should spend the time and energy that would go into an election on stimulus measures instead — compiling a 15-month budget that would combine extra spending for the rest of fiscal 2014 and the annual budget for fiscal 2015.

The prime minister says he is seeking voters’ endorsement of his economic policies, but that sounds much like an afterthought to justify his decision to hold the election.

If policies are not the campaign issue, then apparently Abe is holding the election to beef up his own power base. If the prime minister dissolves the Lower House and resorts to the polls while the opposition camp has yet to decide on its candidates in many of the constituencies, he would likely be able to minimize the LDP’s loss of seats.

Only four LDP leaders have so far survived general elections twice during their tenure as prime minister — Hayato Ikeda, Eisaku Sato, Yasuhiro Nakasone and Junichiro Koizumi. Abe would join their ranks if he survives the election. Then this will possibly set the stage for him to tackle a major political initiative that would allow him to leave his mark on Japan’s postwar political history.

It is presumed that the “certain member of the media” mentioned by Ishiba refers to the Yomiuri Shimbun, which supports the Abe administration’s push to revise the Constitution. The episode seems to indicate that top leaders of the newspaper are in a position to influence the prime minister’s decisions — perhaps more so than the leaders of the party in power.

What Abe would seek to do with a solidified grip on power seems obvious given what he has done over the past two years. In the last general election in December 2012, the LDP never told voters about enacting a state secrets law or restarting nuclear power plants idled in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Using his ruling coalition’s dominant grip on the Diet and sometimes unilateral decisions by his Cabinet, the Abe administration has made key policy decisions in the face of public opposition or widespread concerns. On the issue of collective self-defense, the LDP’s campaign promise for the 2012 election called for enactment of a basic law on national security but Abe’s decision in July to reinterpret the Constitution to enable Japan to engage in collective self-defense came in the form of a Cabinet decision.

The admission by the Asahi Shimbun in August that it erred in its reports on the wartime “comfort women” issue and on the March 2011 disaster at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant triggered an attack by other media members on the newspaper, creating a situation in which the mass media in general appears reluctant to criticize those in power.

That the upcoming election is being held in such an atmosphere may be a coincidence but it will have important connotations for the Abe administration. The fact that top leaders in the administration are repeatedly playing up Asahi’s erroneous reports could discourage the media from trying to uncover government secrets. If Abe wins the election and solidifies his power base, the relationship between the media and the government might change in irreversible ways, effectively making it a taboo to criticize those in power.

One thing that puzzles me is why Abe, if he is holding the election with a grand design for his administration, sounds so childish when he speaks. Over the past two months, he almost appeared to lack a psychological balance when he made emotional responses to Diet questions from opposition lawmakers and denounced as a “fabrication” a newspaper report that quoted a close aide.

In a series of TV interviews that he gave on the evening of Nov. 18 after he announced his decision to dissolve the Lower House, Abe seemed irritated by reporters’ questions (except in the interview he gave to NHK, whose president he hand-picked) as he rattled off his pet arguments. He looks hardly like the leaders that his predecessors such as Nakasone and Koizumi were when they dissolved the chamber for their second election gambit.

With the National Security Council in place and the Constitution reinterpreted to pave way for Japan taking part in collective self-defense operations, people should be aware that Japan has such an unstable person in its leadership position, who can make the final decision for the nation to take military action.

Jiro Yamaguchi is a professor of political science at Hosei University.

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