EDITORIAL: Abe should use majority win to bring pragmatism to Japan’s politics

December 17, 2012

The Dec. 16 Lower House election again demonstrated the tremendous ability of the single-seat constituency system to drastically change the political landscape overnight.

In the election, the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party and its prospective coalition partner, New Komeito, together won a landslide victory, gaining more than 320 seats in total in the 480-seat chamber. That means the alliance will be able to pass bills rejected by the Upper House by having the Lower House pass them a second time with a two-thirds majority. The LDP-New Komeito coalition will return to power after three years of being in opposition and form a government with LDP President Shinzo Abe as the new prime minister.

The ruling Democratic Party of Japan, meanwhile, suffered a devastating defeat, and outgoing Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has announced his resignation as head of the party as well.

There is a huge difference between the numbers of seats gained by the winning and losing parties. But there is not the kind of political excitement among the nation's public as seen in the previous two Lower House elections.

The biggest reason for the poor public enthusiasm for this election was probably the lack of a party that could really represent the will of the people after they became disillusioned with the DPJ, which swept to power three years ago. The "third force" parties failed to galvanize a wide range of people.

This situation, combined with the dynamics of the single-seat constituency system, has put the LDP, which has solid power bases in local communities, in a relatively strong political position. That's the long and short of what happened.

Voter turnout fell significantly from the previous election. The LDP's poll ratings have been around 20 percent, and on the night of the election, LDP chief Abe said the party has not fully regained the trust of Japanese voters.

Abe should not forget this correct observation and should govern the nation in a humble manner without allowing the overwhelming win to make him arrogant.

NO POLITICAL SILVER BULLET

What this nation needs more than anything else now is political stability.

As a consequence of continuous futile partisan warfare, a total of six prime ministers have resigned or will resign in these six years. This is truly an abnormal situation.

During that period, Japan has failed to make effective policy responses to the economic and diplomatic challenges confronting the country, prompting many commentators both at home and abroad to talk about "Japan's decline" as a nation.

Now is the time to bring Japanese politics back to a normal state that allows the leader of the ruling party in the more powerful Lower House of the Diet to get down to tackling policy challenges.

Abe has grave responsibility in this respect. His previous tenure as prime minister ushered in the period of annual changes of the head of the government, although his resignation was due mainly to his poor health. He should not make the same mistake.

What is vital for the success of his second tenure is choosing realistic and flexible policies. There can be no silver bullet to solve all problems immediately, either on the domestic or the diplomatic front.

In its election manifesto, the LDP cited reviving the Japanese economy as the principal policy challenge. Japanese are longing to see their nation pull itself out of the deflationary doldrums.

To re-energize the economy, the LDP has proposed cranking up the Bank of Japan's money-printing machine and sharply expanding government spending on public works. But these proposals raise serious concerns about possible side effects, like runaway inflation and further deterioration of the nation's fiscal health.

China has been making outrageous and provocative moves related to its territorial dispute with Japan over the Senkaku Islands. North Korea's effective missile launch has also stoked nationalism among the Japanese public. It is all too natural that they are concerned about the new government's plan for ensuring the nation's security.

REALISTIC POLICY DECISIONS ARE IN ORDER

The LDP's election manifesto contains a raft of hard-line proposals. It promises to revise the Constitution to upgrade the Self-Defense Forces to a national defense force and to make it possible for Japan to exercise its right to collective self-defense. It also pledges to station government employees on the disputed Senkaku Islands and hold a government-sponsored ceremony to mark "Takeshima Day" to assert Japan's territorial claim over the Takeshima islands in the Sea of Japan, which are under effective control by South Korea.

The question is whether such measures will really help to ensure the security of Japan.

Japan's national interests would be undermined if the perception spreads among its neighbors that it is ignoring the lessons from the prewar period and drifting away from the path it has been pursuing since the end of World War II. Some people in the United States are also expressing concerns that Japan is swinging to the right.

There is a long list of tough challenges the new government needs to tackle.

The Abe administration should push forward the integrated tax and social security reform to fix the nation's public finances. It needs to accelerate efforts to rebuild areas ravaged by last year's earthquake and tsunami, and promote the development of renewable energy sources and expand their use so that the Japanese economy will start growing again. It also has to rebuild Japan's relations with the United States and repair its badly soured ties with its neighbors.

Abe needs to sort out complicated policy issues by cutting through the web of conflicting interests and finding the answers one by one. And he must take responsibility for future generations as well as the current one in pursuing his policy agenda. We hope Abe will demonstrate his ability to provide pragmatic political leadership to deal effectively with these formidable challenges.

During his first tenure as prime minister, Abe fixed Japan's strained relations with China by refraining from visiting Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japanese war criminals as well as the country's war dead. He also followed the views and positions expressed by two important government statements concerning issues related to Japan's wartime past, one issued in 1995 by then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama and one issued in 1993 by then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono. Those kinds of realistic and wise policy decisions are exactly what Japan needs right now.

Also crucial for the new government's stability is building good working relationships based on mutual trust with the DPJ and other opposition parties.

Abe apparently intends to seek to form a broad policy alliance on each specific issue based on the LDP-New Komeito coalition. He should keep it in mind that the DPJ will carry strong political weight, especially as the largest voting bloc in the Upper House, which will be under opposition control at least until the chamber's election next summer.

ACT ON THE THREE-PARTY REFORM AGREEMENT

The first thing Abe should do is carry through the integrated tax and social security reform according to the agreement among the DPJ, the LDP and New Komeito, along with electoral reform of the Lower House.

The three parties have agreed to avoid using the bill to allow the government to issue debt-financing bonds for partisan politics. We hope that the new government will continue the trend created by these moves so as to nurture a political culture in which parties are willing to take part in nonpartisan cooperation when necessary.

The same can be said for the debate on the nuclear energy policy. During the election campaign, many parties called for terminating nuclear power generation in Japan. While the LDP's election manifesto has postponed offering a clear vision for the future of nuclear power in this nation, Abe has expressed his desire to build a society that depends on atomic energy as little as possible. That should mean that all the parties can at least cooperate in efforts to move the nation in that direction.

Needless to say, the opposition parties need to take action against any reckless move by the new government. To prevent unproductive political confrontation between the ruling and opposition camps, New Komeito, which will be the LDP's coalition partner, should serve as a bulwark against wrong-headed moves by the Abe administration.

We also want to offer some advice to the DPJ.

The DPJ's crushing defeat in the election has not lessened in any way the importance of creating a political situation where power can actually change hands. The DPJ should take this harrowing experience as an opportunity to rebuild itself as a well-prepared alternative party ready to replace the LDP at any time when the ruling party fails to measure up to the challenge of governing the nation.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 17

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