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Economy or Security: What “Mandate” Did Abe Get From July Elections?

Jul 21 , 2016
  • Xu Duo

    Fox Fellow, Yale University

Imagine such a scenario. We wake up to a world where Britain ceases being a EU member, where Donald Trump becomes the U.S. president, and where a pacifist Japan forsakes its peace constitution. One of these has already materialized when Britons voted themselves out of the European Union in a referendum this June. As for the second, no one is 100 percent sure that having Trump as America’s president is out of the question. And the third one, the Japanese part, is probably on the point of coming true sometime in a not-too-distant future.

Japan held elections on July 10 to replace half of its 242-member upper house of parliament. The results showed the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its alliance put up a strong showing and secured a two-thirds majority. Given the fact that the ruling coalition already enjoys a majority in the more powerful lower house, this latest victory would strengthen Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s position in his bid to rewrite Japan’s peace constitution, imposed by the U.S.-led occupation forces 70 years ago.

For any effort to rewrite the constitution to be successful, it needs approval from both houses by a super majority of two-thirds. Then the bill has to go to a national referendum, during which a simple majority is required before it becomes effective. The LDP led by Abe regained the lower house in the 2012 elections, and then went on to grab the upper house in 2013. The latest success, with the expanded majority in the upper house, further cements LDP’s control of the parliament and lends much needed time for the party to set in motion the process of rewriting the constitution.

At first sight, amending or rewriting a constitution lies well within a country’s right. Yet such a move by Japan has implications well beyond its borders. Whereas on the pro side, Japan’s efforts to raise its military profile dovetail with America’s demand that the country take on more responsibilities for its own security and contribute more to the lopsided U.S.-Japanese alliance; on the downside, this action would by all measures be interpreted by Japan’s neighbors, China in particular, as attempts to rearm itself and disrupt the regional power alignment.

Even viewed through a narrowly defined domestic lens, Japan’s venture to rewrite its constitution invites as many problems as it attempts to resolve.

For anyone following Japan’s news in the run-up to the July elections, it seems puzzling that there existed an abrupt shift in LDP’s campaign focus. Constitution rewriting had been one of the central planks of the party’s platform, but as the elections approached, it was increasingly replaced by economic topics. In the immediate months before the elections, “Abenomics” had become the single most frequently trumpeted catchphrase, blotting out talks on any other issues. Candidates from or backed by the LDP went out of their way to envision a Japanese economy brought back to its feet by Abenomics’ three arrows: monetary easing, fiscal stimulus and structural reform. At the same time, Abe himself began scaling back on his previous insistence on raising sales tax as scheduled. Conspicuously absent from the whole campaign clamor is rhetoric about pushing through constitutional rewriting.

However, absent from rhetoric is by no means absent from mind. This strategic downplay of a highly controversial issue is more like political expediency to secure election victories. Shifting focus from constitution to economy would not only avoid feeding opposition parties with ammunition, but also appease a jittery populace that has been struggling in difficult economic situations. After all, to most Japanese, economic woes such as taxes, pensions and childcare are much more acutely felt than those lofty and nebulous visions as global security or geopolitical power. Public-opinion polls have repeatedly showed that a majority of the Japanese consider economic issues as their top concern.

Some may argue that the LDP would follow through its election promise to cope with the economy. Nevertheless, its track record does not seem to back up such a claim. In December 2012, the LDP recaptured the lower house by a landslide victory after voters were deeply disenchanted by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ)’s disastrous handling of the earthquake and nuclear meltdown. However, instead of delivering its campaign promise to recover the economy, the LDP spent most of its political capital on pushing through a secret law bill. Then in the 2013 elections, the party took control of the upper house, but again it was bent on ramming through a security bill to raise Japan’s military profile overseas. Each time, the LDP promised to deliver Japan from its decades-long deflation and got elected on that promise, yet each time the party turned away from its economic vow and toward political aims. Given this track record, it is only reasonable for people to wonder what would follow this time.

Asahi  best captured Abe’s strategy by describing it as “atodashi” (後出し), which means in the rock-paper-scissors game, one player intentionally indicates gesture only after the opponent indicates his, thus securing victory unfairly. It seems Abe has learned a lesson from his first stint as prime minister. He stepped down less than one year into his term in 2007, bogged down partly by health issues and a scandal-prone cabinet, and partly by his rightist stance at home and abroad. Ever since his comeback in 2012, Abe has been wise enough to wrap his political ambitions under an economic cloak dubbed “Abenomics”.

Elected leaders tend to fall back on the rationale that they have the mandate granted by voters to carry out policy. However, such a mandate is far from a carte blanche to pursue whatever goals. To say the least, in the July elections, the turnout rate hovered precariously above 50 percent, making it the fourth lowest in Japan’s postwar history. It means though the LDP won a two-third majority, only one in three Japanese voters espouses its policy.

Moreover, even if we accept the election result at its face value, a troubling problem remains. It is true that Japanese voters gave the winner a mandate to govern, but it only means the leader has the mandate to carry out the policy on which the party was elected in the first place. As some opposition parties argued, economic issues are nothing but a “smokescreen” for the LDP and Abe to pursue their deeply held dream: Scrap article 9 and restore a full-fledged military.

It is OK that a political party harbors earnest ambitions, and it is even something positive given the fact that in Japan’s political landscape, what is problematic is not the existence of such ambition, but the absence of it. Japan’s political parties have long been notorious for the lack of long-term vision and clear-cut policies. It would benefit the country a great deal if a party is able to put together coherent policy and see it through. What is truly disturbing is abusing the mandate sanctioned through the democratic process. For a political party, thinking about the next election is justifiable, while thinking only about the next election is not, especially when the LDP is facing the weakest ever opposition in history. Given its secure position, it is the best time to bring about fundamental change.

As for Prime Minister Abe, his dream of restoring Japan’s status to that of a “normal” nation is understandable, yet there are other, more pressing issues besetting the country, such as an ageing population, skyrocketing pension and health-care burdens, lackluster economic performance, rigid employment structures and underutilizing the potential of women. As a leader who will probably be ruling till 2018 and thus on track to becoming the third longest-serving prime minister in Japan’s postwar history, Abe is now in a much better position even than his mentor Junichiro Koizumi to press ahead with structural reforms. For whatever reasons, the Japanese people have, after all, granted him another opportunity, and it would be truly regrettable if he squanders that opportunity again on some vague dreams. Surely constitution rewriting might be among measures envisioned by him to create “a beautiful nation”, but it would be better if that is something far down his to-do list.

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