Abe’s win at the polls signals a democracy in disarray and a shift to a neo-nationalist agenda.
Shinzo Abe is back. Last month, the day after Japan slid into a technical recession, the Prime Minister called snap elections to renew his claim to rule. The bet could not have been safer. The timing gave opposition parties only two weeks pull together a campaign, and with the Democratic Party of Japan, thrown from power in 2012, polling only 11 percent, Abe had little to worry about.
He billed the vote as a plebiscite on Abenomics, his neoliberal cocktail of one part fiscal stimulus, one part monetary easing, and one part structural reform. The heady blend is supposed to jolt the Japanese economy – still the third largest in the world – out of the coma it fell into in 1990. The result so far has been good for classic export giants, which are again posting profits as the yen falls against the dollar. The stock market, which tracks currency exchange rates more than productivity, is up too. But as was the case with the program’s American namesake, none of this is trickling down. Workers have seen their paychecks shrink by 2.8 percent, while they pay 3 percent more in consumption tax at the till. Continued labor market deregulation in the country once known for “lifetime employment” has shifted nearly 40 percent of workers onto limited-term contracts with poor provisions. The bigger picture is also grim. GDP is 1.6 percent lower than it was a year ago, and Moody’s recently downgraded Japan’s credit rating, placing greater pressure on the government to tame its growing deficit. Still 25 years of stagnant growth have left many voters ready to accept anything as long as it’s change. Abe laid out the options for them in his ominous TINA campaign slogan: “There is no other way to economic recovery.”
The Liberal Democratic Party is hailing the victory as a landslide. With its coalition partner, New Komeito, it controls more than the two-thirds of seats in the House of Representatives. But trumpeting the supermajority diverts attention from its shaky popularity. Abe’s party not only fell short of its goal to secure 300 out of 480 positions in the lower house, it actually lost three seats. Snap elections typically draw voters to the polls, but this one saw them staying home in record numbers. Compared to the last general elections, about ten million fewer people thought their voice would make a difference, and the 52 percent turnout was the lowest in Japan’s postwar history. The real winner of widespread dissatisfaction with business as usual was the Japanese Communist Party – the only group to offer an alternative platform with consistency – which nearly trebled its seats to 21.
Beyond the JCP, however, the opposition is in disarray. The Democratic Party of Japan, which controlled the government from 2009 to 2012, picked up a few seats, but its total win of 72 fell far short of its goal to secure 100, and its own party leader, Banri Kaieda, failed to win re-election. The result is a blow for those who hoped that electoral reform would bring about a two-party system. Instead, we see a return to the default predominance of the LDP in the absence of alternatives. Even if the party has controlled the government for 55 years out of the last 59, it’s not terribly well liked, and hasn’t claimed a simple majority in the popular vote in over half a century.
But this matters little in a system where seat bonuses are divvied out to the party that secures the largest number of ballots. The result is a commanding position for Abe. The LDP, with its coalition sidekick, holds the supermajority in the House of Representatives needed to pass legislation over the heads of other parties. The duo also holds a simple majority in the House of Councillors, which will hamper the veto of legislation passed in the lower house. What will Abe do with this great power and a renewed mandate? With the election results coming in, he hinted at the program ahead in a press conference where he told the media that it is his “ardent desire” to revise the Constitution.
Like Denmark, Japan has never amended its founding document, but current LDP proposals call for a comprehensive overhaul that would transform nearly all of its 103 Articles, beginning with the Preamble. In place of its hymns to universal human rights and personal liberty would come solemn declarations of Japan’s long history and unique culture. The emperor, relegated to symbolic status following imperial defeat in 1945, would be upgraded to the position of Head of State. Throughout the document, the revisions would emphasize the importance of maintaining public order over protecting individual rights, such as free speech. Eroding the position of the individual yet further, the family would replace the person as the basic unit of society. And, crucially, Article 9, which – read according to the letter – rejects war as a sovereign right, would be rewritten to legalize a full-fledged army. If the “Peace Article” has been reinterpreted over the years to allow a National Police Reserve then a National Safety Force, and now a Self Defence Force, it nonetheless occupies a hallowed position within the national imaginary, and most Japanese will proudly declaim that their country is the only one to have given up war. The transformation of Article 9 would mark the end of an era.
Will Abe succeed? At the moment, it’s hard to tell as the procedural hurdles for amending the Constitution are high. The prime minister will need two-thirds support in both the upper and lower houses to carry his agenda forward, and the only issue on which his coalition partner doesn’t line up obediently with the master is constitutional revision. Thus he is likely to begin by changing Article 96, which specifies the conditions for altering the Constitution, to require a simple majority in both houses, as well as in a popular referendum. Once this hurdle is lowered, he can sprint ahead with other reforms. Of course, none of this is a done deal. But even if Abe’s “ardent wish” to overhaul the country’s founding charter is not fulfilled, he may proceed to implement his neo-nationalist agenda with the alternative methods he has employed since he entered office. Free speech can be circumscribed through other means, and on December 10, his State Secrets Law took effect. This anti-whistle blower act threatens journalists with five years in prison, and their sources with ten, for reporting on a poorly defined range of issues deemed critical to state security. Rewriting Article 9 to allow a national defence force would only clarify what has already become practice. In July Abe’s Cabinet Legislation Bureau decided that the Article’s wording – “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the treat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes” – doesn’t actually mean quite what it says, and that the Self Defence Forces could indeed use force if an international dispute involved Japan. Similar creative problem-solving could be applied to implement other elements of his neo-nationalist agenda. Whether by hook or crook it looks as though the red sun is growing larger in Japan’s future.
Kristin Surak is a Senior Lecturer in Japanese Politics at SOAS, University of London.