Commentary / Japan

Winners and losers in the election

The absence of a political force that can stand up to the Abe administration is a political crisis

by Jiro Yamaguchi

The ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito swept a two-thirds majority of the Lower House in the general election last Sunday. The result was only natural given the breakup of the No. 1 opposition Democratic Party just before the campaign kicked off.

Right after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe dissolved the Lower House for the snap election, DP leader Seiji Maehara made the surprise move to effectively disband the party to be absorbed by the upstart Kibo no To (Party of Hope) just launched by Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike.

Koike, however, said her party would only selectively accept DP members, excluding those who oppose amending the Constitution. The word “exclude” she uttered to reject some DP members offended voters and popular expectations in her party quickly dwindled. The outcome of the election was fairly predictable when Kibo no To, the main contender to Abe’s ruling coalition, entered the race without even identifying its own candidate for prime minister.

This race, however, was quite different from the elections the ruling alliance won in recent years. According to an opinion poll by the Asahi Shimbun during the campaign (and published Oct. 19), the Abe Cabinet’s 38 percent approval rate was outweighed by its 40 percent disapproval rate. In response to a question on whether the LDP should remain at the helm of government, 37 percent said “yes” versus 36 percent who felt a different party should take power. Asked whether they want Abe to remain prime minister, 34 percent said “yes,” but 51 percent said “no.” It was clear that voters are becoming tired and distrustful of the Abe administration.

It now seems all but certain Abe will stay in office for nearly four more years. He has hinted that he will finally proceed to revise the Constitution — his pet political theme — on the strength of the Diet majority. A constitutional amendment may be initiated by the Diet in its regular session next year — for approval in a first-ever national referendum later in the year — at the earliest.

The Abe administration remains unrivaled in the Diet. But his attempt may end in failure if he makes light of popular opinion. The same Asahi Shimbun survey showed that 37 percent of the respondents supported Abe’s proposal to amend Article 9 by adding a clause clarifying the legal status of the Self-Defense Forces, against 40 percent who opposed it.

Even if the amendment is initiated by two-thirds of the members of both Diet chambers, a majority endorsement in the referendum may be in doubt. Japan can defend itself under the current Constitution, and no concrete situation has emerged that necessitates an amendment. The example of the vote in the United Kingdom to leave the European Union shows that holding a referendum on an issue that divides popular opinion will only actualize the divide, possibly disrupting society in negative ways.

Today, Japan is confronted with the structural difficulties of a declining population and massive fiscal deficits. Behind the stock market boom, false product quality inspections at such major companies as Kobe Steel Ltd. and Nissan Motor Co. have surfaced, exposing problems in the nation’s industrial sectors deemed at the world’s top levels.

Instead of spending time and energy on an unnecessary revision to the Constitution, a wise political leader would be devoted to solving these practical policy challenges by proactively informing the public of the situation, and working out and implementing corrective measures. In dissolving the Lower House, Abe declared that he would not succumb to North Korea’s threats and called the snap election a race to break through a national crisis. However, the crisis lies within the country, and failure by the political leader to squarely face it makes the crisis even more serious.

The absence of a political force that can stand up to the Abe administration is also a political crisis. The urgent challenge is to rebuild the opposition camp from the current fragmentation into a force that can once again seek the helm of government.

The Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, established just before the campaign kicked off and expousing the values of Western liberal democracy, garnered enough voter support to become the No. 1 opposition force. Whether the CDP can grow into a national party that encompasses a broad spectrum of the electorate — from moderate conservatives who used to support the LDP to progressive citizens with an affinity to liberal forces within the Democratic Party of the United States — will hold the key to future developments in party politics in Japan.

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