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Tension Returns to Japanese Politics

20 Jul 2016
By Rikki Kersten
Shinzo Abe. Photo credit: PROm-louis .® (Flickr) Creative Commons
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Commentary in the wake of Japan’s upper house election on 10 July has leapt to conclusions concerning the implications of Abe’s success in this poll. Across the board, the claims need to be tempered with sober probability: constitutional revision will remain devilishly tough to pull off; different groups mean different things when they talk of constitutional revision; and the votes for and against revision are far from “in the bag”.

What was actually achieved

The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) led by Shinzo Abe did secure a simple majority in the 10 July half upper house election. While this was no doubt gratifying for Prime Minister Abe, Japan’s media was focused on another set of numbers: the total tally of political forces who were positively disposed towards revising Japan’s postwar constitution.

The “pro-revision” forces, comprising the Liberal Democratic Party, the Komeito, Osaka Ishin no Kai (Osaka Renewal Group), the Nihon no Kokoro o Taisetsu ni Suru To (Party for Cherishing the Japanese Spirit) and some independents, achieved a notional two-thirds majority in that chamber. Along with a two-thirds majority held by the ruling LDP-Komeito coalition in the lower house, this means that theoretically the way is clear for the Abe government to put constitutional revision before the people in a national referendum. For the first time since 1947, revision of the so-called “peace constitution” has entered the realm of possibility.

On the other hand, the self-appointed “anti-revision” forces failed to prevent Abe’s historic majority in the upper house, despite putting forward an unprecedented united ticket that included the Japan Communist Party, the Democratic Party, the Social Democratic Party and the People’s Life Party. But they did achieve something else: they shattered the taboo surrounding cooperation with the communists and in the process sparked a response in the electorate that makes the ruling parties’ dominance appear slightly less impregnable.

Compared to two seats won three years ago, the opposition parties together collected 11 seats this time around. These unlikely collaborators also developed a platform that extended beyond negative rebuttal of constitutional revision, covering welfare, education and childcare. This could presage another united ticket in the next lower house election. It should be noted that direct negotiation between the communists and the other opposition entities remains riven with tension, and it is an incredible achievement that they were able to produce enough unity to run joint candidates in all 32 single seat electorates.

Undeterred by their ostensible failure, this still-motley opposition group, backed by a coalition of community based groups called the Citizen’s Alliance, is now pouring its members’ combined energies into a joint candidate in the Tokyo Governorship poll, scheduled for 31 July. The group is honing its collaborative skills and practicing unity ahead of the next major election in 2018.

The numbers are not what they seem

Although observers have noted the strong showing of Abe in this his fourth consecutive election victory, there is much going on beneath the raw count. Essentially, there is evidence of tension across the political spectrum and this promises to shake up Japanese politics in the coming 18 months. Abe’s administration can only bank on a notional two-thirds majority in both chambers until the next lower house poll due by December 2018.

A fascinating outcome of this recent election was the flow of votes to opposition candidates not only from unaffiliated voters, but also from committed Komeito voters. According to exit polls, fully 24 per cent of Komeito supporters steered their votes on this occasion to opposition candidates in the single seat electorates. It sends an unmistakable warning to the Komeito leadership and to Abe, not to mention those who assume unity of purpose in the pro-revision camp. Komeito supporters are letting their political representatives know that they are not comfortable with the revision of Article 9, even though they may favour other constitutional changes such as clauses relating to the environment and the right to privacy.

Abe did not mention constitutional revision on the campaign trail. Most observers assume that he did this because he knows majority public opinion is ill-disposed towards the revision of Article 9. But it is also likely that he avoided mentioning the constitution because he did not want to further dismay his coalition colleagues and their Soka Gakkai supporters. Despite their victory, tensions inside the coalition continue to simmer on this question.

Our assumptions regarding the anti-revision forces are also shaky. Polls following 10 July indicate that a number of Democratic Party politicians are in favour of constitutional revision. Never a collectivity of like-minded politicians, the Democratic Party may be headed for more tough times as Abe seeks to exploit tensions in the opposition camp. Moreover, media reports indicate a certain degree of buyer’s remorse on the part of the voting public, with 48 per cent of those polled by the Asahi newspaper last week declaring “misgivings” concerning the Abe government’s policy direction.

Our faith in the numbers reported on election night clearly needs a rethink.

A new beginning for Japanese politics?

With his victory in Japan’s half upper house election, it has widely been assumed that Shinzo Abe now has a realistic chance of pursuing revision of the 1947 constitution, including its peace clause Article 9. But while the numerical dominance of pro-revision forces in both houses of parliament seems conclusive, the electoral landscape will continue to shift in the aftermath of this election.

What the election outcome has revealed is that the static, lopsided nature of Japanese politics seems to have shifted in this election, just at the moment when the ruling coalition seems to have achieved its greatest victory of all.

While still in its infancy, momentum is developing on the opposition side of politics and sections of the community have been galvanised to facilitate this process. At the very moment Japanese politics appears rock solid under LDP dominance the ground is shifting beneath the LDP’s feet.

Professor Rikki Kersten is Dean of the School of Arts at Murdoch University. She specialises in Japanese political thought and contemporary politics and conducts research into Japan’s security policy. She can be reached at R.Kersten@Murdoch.edu.au. This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.