INTERVIEW/ Takashi Mikuriya: Abe will have to act quickly on constitutional change

December 18, 2012


Following the Liberal Democratic Party's landslide victory in the Lower House election on Dec. 16, incoming Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may succeed in passing his proposal to amend the Constitution by winning support from both the Japan Restoration Party and the Democratic Party of Japan, instead of coalition partner New Komeito, said Takashi Mikuriya, a professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo, in an interview with The Asahi Shimbun.

Excerpts from the interview follow:

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Question: Does the huge electoral victory of the LDP, which didn’t oppose restarting idled nuclear reactors, mean that the Japanese public has opted to keep nuclear power plants running in this country?

Mikuriya: The LDP has traditionally been promoting nuclear power generation and its election manifesto supported restarting offline reactors. But it is open to debate whether the LDP’s landslide victory reflects voters’ support for the party’s nuclear energy policy.

The differences in the nuclear energy policies of the parties are far from clear. In particular, there are no significant differences between the LDP and the DPJ in their energy policies and stances toward the issue of nuclear power generation. Both parties have simply postponed tackling the core energy policy challenge head-on.

There has been no serious power shortage in Japan while almost all nuclear reactors have been offline. The issue of nuclear power generation was not a crucial factor for voters’ decisions at the polls. It cannot be said that Japanese made their decision on the nuclear energy policy in this nation on election day. The time will come sooner or later when Japanese have to make that decision.

Q: As a researcher who has been studying Japanese politics over the years, how do you view the LDP’s return to power?

A: The current single-seat constituency system for the Lower House was introduced as a consequence of Ichiro Ozawa’s move in 1993 to leave the LDP with his political allies to form a new party in pursuit of his political vision of a two-party system.

In 2009, the change of the power Ozawa had been seeking to realize actually took place. But the LDP’s overwhelming victory in the Dec. 16 election has effectively ended the two-party system in the Lower House. The newly created Tomorrow Party of Japan, which Ozawa joined shortly before the election, won only nine seats. Ironically, the election has marginalized Ozawa and led to the effective “one-party rule by an overwhelmingly powerful LDP,” the very situation he had been trying to prevent.

Q: Is it possible for the DPJ to recover from its crushing defeat for the revival of the two-party system?

A: Japan’s governing system was built on the basis of rule by the LDP, which remained in power for more than five decades. The LDP is, so to speak, part of Japan’s “infrastructure.” Even after the LDP fell from power and into the opposition ranks in 2009, its local organizations have remained active. The latest election demonstrated the amazing power of the party’s vote-gathering machine. The machine made it possible for the LDP to win in so many single-seat constituencies in the election as independent votes were split among new “third force” parties.

The DPJ owed its victory in the previous Lower House poll to a surging public desire to see power change hands. The support bases of many individual DPJ lawmakers have remained weak. The DPJ, whose seats in the Lower House have fallen to 57, will see a sharp drop in the state subsidies it receives. It will become difficult for the party to maintain its local branches.

The DPJ needs to drastically rejuvenate its leadership team and rebuild itself from the ground up. Even if it makes such efforts, however, the party will not likely be able to crawl back to power in the next election. But there is no other way for the party’s revival.

Q: What are the main factors behind the LDP’s landslide victory?

A: Japanese voters wanted to see political stability now. In 2009, voters bet on the promises of reform made by the DPJ and gave the party a ruling mandate. But the DPJ has turned out to be a collection of policy amateurs. The party failed to offer a stable government, and its diplomacy failed completely.

Learning lessons from the DPJ’s miserable performance as the governing party, voters decided to return the LDP, whose policies are predictable to a certain extent, to power. But they had no high expectations for the LDP’s government. The change of government this time is different in nature from what happened in the 2009 Lower House election, when the DPJ received ardent support from voters.

Q: What are the key policy challenges Abe should tackle by using his party’s strong majority in the Lower House and what kind of policy agenda is he likely to pursue?

A: The DPJ is still the largest voting bloc in the Upper House. As long as the Upper House is under control of the opposition, Abe will not be able to swiftly carry out new policy proposals. He will probably restrain himself from launching any bold policy initiatives during the half year to the next Upper House election, while focusing his political efforts on winning a majority in that chamber.

But politicians who sympathize with Abe’s rightist policy proposals don’t belong to the mainstream within the LDP. If he really wants to revise the Constitution and rename the Self-Defense Forces as the national security forces, he will have to push through these initiatives immediately while he maintains the political momentum created by the electoral victory.

If he embarks on a constitutional amendment, the LDP’s coalition partner, New Komeito, which strongly values the pacifist credo of the Constitution, will put up fierce resistance. But the crushing victory in the election has decreased the political importance of New Komeito for the LDP. There is the possibility that Abe might succeed in passing his proposal to revise the Constitution to ease the conditions for constitutional amendments by winning support from both the Japan Restoration Party and the DPJ.

Books written by past LDP leaders such as former prime ministers Eisaku Sato and Kiichi Miyazawa tell you that they solidly espoused the postwar values that put primary importance on peace and democracy. Abe needs to push his policy agenda while showing cautiousness about any radical departure from these values. Since Abe has a tendency to lose sight of the big picture, I’m worried that he may move headlong in one direction.

Under the DPJ-led government, Japan’s international stature fell significantly. If the Abe administration fails to reverse the trend and allows political instability to continue, Japan will fall into a full-blown national crisis. I do hope that Abe will glean lessons from his experience during his first tenure as prime minister and realize a stable and competent government.

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Takashi Mikuriya, a professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo, is a researcher in political science and the history of Japanese politics. After serving as professor at the University of Tokyo for years, he is now a professor at the Open University of Japan. Mikuriya, born in 1951, is the leading expert in oral history of Japanese politics--the collection and study of historical information about Japanese politics through interviews of politicians and other people involved.

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Akira Kudochi is a staff writer of The Asahi Shimbun Chinese digital edition.

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Takashi Mikuriya (Photo by Akira Kudochi)

Takashi Mikuriya (Photo by Akira Kudochi)

  • Takashi Mikuriya (Photo by Akira Kudochi)

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