The July 21 Upper House election could have a profound impact on the future of Japan for many years.
Public opinion polls conducted by media organizations show strong support for the Liberal Democratic Party and coalition partner, New Komeito. Forecasts predict the ruling coalition will gain a clear majority in the Upper House.
With Prime Minister Shinzo Abe having long argued for breaking away from the postwar regime, a victory for his LDP could set in motion a move toward constitutional revision.
Questions will also remain as to whether the Abe administration will push ahead with the resumption of operations at nuclear power plants, even though public opinion is opposed to that move.
Toru Hayano covered Japanese politics for 40 years as a reporter and columnist for The Asahi Shimbun. He is currently a professor at J.F. Oberlin University in Tokyo.
Hayano was asked about the major issues of the Upper House election and what may be in store for Japan's future.
Excerpts of the interview follow:
Question: What is the major focus of the election?
Answer: The focus is on whether the LDP, which swept to a landslide victory under Abe in December's Lower House election, will win in the Upper House election and do away with Diet gridlock.
The only long-term administrations in recent memory are the five-year governments led by Yasuhiro Nakasone (1982-87) and Junichiro Koizumi (2001-06).
Abe wants to eliminate Diet gridlock and create a stable, long-term administration of his own in which he can implement various pet policies.
The major issues of the election are the Constitution, the economy, nuclear energy and the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade arrangement.
Q: How do you view Abe's call to break out of the postwar regime mold?
A: He made that argument the first time he was prime minister (in 2006-07) and a major component is revising Article 9 of the Constitution (which renounces war and prohibits the possession of military forces).
He views the postwar regime as being symbolized by Article 9 and of being a democratic nation defeated in war that has been disarmed.
His argument is to move away from such a situation by revising Article 9 and possessing a national defense military. In that way, Japan would become an international military player capable of handling not only its own defense, but also participating in the defense of its allies.
REVISING ARTICLE 9 IS ABE's LIFEWORK
Q: How is public opinion viewing those arguments made by Abe?
A: A majority of the public favors maintaining Article 9 for its pacifist principle and ideals, but also acknowledges the existence of the Self-Defense Forces as a means of dealing with realistic threats. Such a stance of re-interpreting the Constitution was the mainstream view of the LDP in the past.
Abe has now proposed first revising Article 96, which sets the provisions for constitutional amendments. He is calling for changing the current requirement of two-thirds majorities in both Diet chambers to initiate an amendment and reducing the condition to a simple majority in the two chambers. That is a form of trying to enter a university through the back door.
However, because a majority of the public does not support this proposal, the LDP has not taken an aggressive stance in trying to make constitutional revision a major issue of the election.
Q: How will the constitutional revision issue play out after the election?
A: If the LDP just barely squeaks by in its victory, the Abe administration will have to focus on economic issues, including whether to proceed with raising the consumption tax rate from the current 5 percent to 8 percent next April.
However, if the party wins in a landslide, Abe can make plans for a long-term stable government because there would be no national election over the next three years.
In that case, Abe will definitely move toward constitutional revision. Not only has the LDP included constitutional revision in its campaign platform, but Abe has clearly stated that his lifework will be revising Article 9.
Such a move would be a huge challenge that would be a groundbreaking event in postwar Japan.
In the Diet, efforts will likely be made to split the Democratic Party of Japan and have those who favor constitutional revision in that party join the majority fold. Moves will also be made to increase the forces favoring constitutional revision by also including the Japan Restoration Party and Your Party.
The situation will arise in which Abe's calls for constitutional reform will have to confront acceptance of the Constitution that has taken root among the public.
PUBLIC PREOCCUPIED WITH BREAD-AND-BUTTER ISSUES
Q: What about the nuclear energy issue?
A: Public opinion polls show about 50 percent of respondents opposed to nuclear energy and 30 percent favoring nuclear energy. The opposition parties are generally calling for moving away from nuclear energy.
The LDP has called for resumption of operations at nuclear plants due to concerns about the effects on the economy in terms of the electricity supply and the financial condition of electric power companies.
If the LDP should win, momentum will strengthen for the resumption of operations. However, the public still holds a strong desire to move away from nuclear energy.
I believe that in the long run the LDP will also have to move in the direction of reducing dependence on nuclear energy.
Q: Why does Abe's LDP, which is promoting the resumption of operations at nuclear plants, enjoy such strong support even as a majority of the public is opposed to nuclear energy?
A: While voters are not placing less emphasis on the nuclear energy issue, for a majority of the public, a much more pressing concern is an improvement in their daily lives. With the long period of deflation, there has been an increase in the number of people with low-paying, unstable, irregular jobs.
Expectations for an improvement of those economic conditions now exceed interest in the nuclear energy issue. There are also concerns about whether the Japanese economy will function properly if there is a move away from nuclear energy.
Q: It appears the public has high expectations for the Abenomics package of economic policies.
A: Abe has implemented a three-pronged economic policy of monetary easing, fiscal spending and an economic growth strategy. He has said the policies have succeeded in moving Japan out of its deflationary state.
The public holds expectations for Abenomics, and while there have been some who have raised concerns, that has not developed into decisive criticism.
The opposition parties have also failed to come up with an alternative policy.
In the long term, there is the issue of what to do with the government debt, which is approaching 1,000 trillion yen ($10 trillion). Whether that issue can also be resolved through Abenomics will be a very difficult problem.
LIKELIHOOD OF PROGRESS IN ASIAN DIPLOMACY
Q: After Abe's LDP wins in the election, what will occur in diplomatic relations with China and South Korea, which are currently very troubled?
A: The administration's fundamental hard-line stance will not likely change because the issues with China and South Korea involve territorial disputes.
However, if the Abe administration ends up with majorities in both chambers of the Diet, but is still unable to resolve the tense relations with China and South Korea, the United States may become more open about its criticism of its ally.
There also will be those in Japan who will raise concerns about the deepening ties between the United States and China.
There could come a time when Abe's diplomatic incompetence is called into question. His administration will have to find a way to break out of such a situation from the standpoint of a global strategy.
There will likely be informal efforts to seek out a compromise to allow for the holding of meetings with the leaders of China and South Korea before the end of the year.
Q: What is your view about the TPP?
A: There are no major differences between the LDP and DPJ over the need to deal with a global economy, liberalizing trade and eliminating tariff barriers. Because Japan depends on trade, the public also approves of such arguments.
However, farmers are strongly opposed because of the major effects the TPP will have on agriculture. It will be interesting to see how anti-TPP candidates will fare in the election.
DISAPPOINTMENT AND ANGER AT DPJ
Q: It's widely predicted that voter turnout will be low on July 21?
A: That is right. Voters who have doubts about the Abe administration will likely not vote because the opposition parties that should be the recipient of such votes have collapsed.
The Japanese Communist Party (which has clearly come out against nuclear energy, constitutional revision, TPP and raising the consumption tax rate) will likely receive more votes. But it cannot serve as an alternative because there is no way it can gain control of government.
Q: After winning overwhelmingly in the 2009 Lower House election, why did the DPJ go down to such a major defeat last December?
A: Having witnessed the corruption within the LDP and its inability to make decisions, the public voted for the DPJ to give it a chance at governing. However, that was only a test and did not mean that the DPJ had a strong support base.
The DPJ administration was unable to implement the policies that it promised. The party also split apart. The immature management of the government and party affairs comes down to the immaturity of the party leaders. That led to a huge disappointment and anger among voters.
As a member of the opposition LDP, Abe carefully observed the failures of the DPJ. The DPJ tried to implement 100 percent of the policies that it promised. It tried to realize the planks in its campaign manifesto even though there was no fiscal backing to implement such policies.
Unable to find a compromise within the party over raising the consumption tax rate, the DPJ ended up tearing itself apart.
To avoid a similar outcome, Abe's LDP has learned that implementing about 70 percent of its total policy package is acceptable.
The lesson it has learned from the DPJ is that nothing will arise out of a split due to internal party conflict that would lead the LDP to once again become an opposition party.
Q: Will the DPJ still remain after the Upper House election?
A: I do not think the DPJ will vanish.
In Britain, the Labor Party spent 18 years in the opposition after Margaret Thatcher's Tories garnered control of the government. During that time, Tony Blair emerged as the Labor leader and would eventually lead the party to gain control of government (1997-2007).
I do not believe the LDP will continue to succeed. But will it be replaced by the Japan Restoration Party, Your Party, the JCP or the Social Democratic Party?
I think it will be difficult for parties that espouse leading-edge and unique policies.
A party like the DPJ that has several policy choices and which also has a system of selecting policy depending on the will of the public will end up being the major alternative to the LDP.
If the DPJ once again builds up its major principles and policies, it could become a force capable of taking on the LDP. A leader must also emerge who can personify what the party stands for.
Born in 1945, Toru Hayano joined The Asahi Shimbun in 1968. He worked as a political news writer, senior staff writer and columnist. After retiring from the Asahi in 2010, he has taught media studies and political journalism at J.F. Oberlin University. He has written a number of books, including a 2012 biography of Kakuei Tanaka, the former prime minister.
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