Can Abe rise to the challenges?

ON JULY 21, a sunny Sunday, Japanese citizens went to local schools and municipal offices to elect half of 242 members of the House of Councillors, Japan’s Upper House. The result was a clear-cut victory for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which won 65 out of 121 contested seats. As a consequence, the LDP and its coalition partner, the New Komeito (or clean party), secured a majority with 135 seats in the Upper House. This was in addition to the 326 seats in the 480-seat Lower House the coalition gained in December last year.

The Upper House is less powerful than the Lower House. But the ruling coalition’s victory was extremely significant. The failure of ruling parties to win a majority in the Upper House has consistently paralysed Japanese politics over the past six years.

In 2007, the ruling LDP’s loss in the Upper House election prompted the political demise of then-prime minister Shinzo Abe two months later. In 2010, the then-ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) also lost a majority in the Upper House, paving the way for a crushing defeat in the 2012 Lower House election. Against such a backdrop, the Japanese voters sought strong and stable political leadership, which second-time prime minister, Mr Abe, seemed to offer.

Can Abe deliver?

NOW, the question is whether Mr Abe can deliver that leadership. There are mixed expectations. The good news is that no election is scheduled for another three years. This provides him with sufficient time to bring about real change in the way the Japanese state functions. Since Japanese people are fed up with the constant turnover of prime ministers, they are likely to turn a blind eye to the small mistakes that he will likely make in the process.

At the moment, Mr Abe does not face any serious political challenge. Mr Taro Aso, a sloppy deputy prime minister, has discredited himself by his “Let’s learn from Nazis” remark. Mr Abe has also contained Mr Shigeru Ishiba, a slightly nerdy but popular policy specialist, in the party’s top leadership position and appeased Mr Yoshimasa Hayashi, a young rising star in the LDP, by offering him a Cabinet position.

There is also bad news, however. The LDP successfully maintained its unity until election day. But, now that the job is done, party members are beginning to speak up.

Successful LDP candidates include those who previously held positions such as chairman of the national association of postmasters, executive director of the national association of agricultural cooperatives, vice-chairman of the Japan Medical Association, and director for roads in the Ministry of Construction. These people represent parochial interests.

Policy dilemma

MR ABE will soon face the traditional dilemma that all LDP leaders have faced in the past: If they do too much, the party will disintegrate; if they do too little, Japan will continue to stagnate.

As a first step towards encouraging change, Mr Abe decided to participate in the free-trade Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations in March. He expects the resulting agreement to serve as the driving force for reform and deregulation. According to an opinion poll conducted by the Asahi Shimbun and Mr Masaki Taniguchi, however, while 27 per cent of LDP members elected in July responded positively to Japan’s participation in the TPP, 25 per cent of them were negative. Only time will tell whether Mr Abe can push through a true reformist agenda while keeping internal opposition at bay.

Japanese voters are more concerned about the economy than politics. In a recent public opinion poll, conducted by the Asahi Shimbun, 35 per cent of Japanese citizens said that Mr Abe should focus on the economy and employment. Another 25 per cent emphasised social welfare reform. Less than 10 per cent of respondents hoped he would push ahead with his security and foreign policy agendas or his constitutional amendment plans.

Particularly divisive among these policy agendas is the issue of amending the Constitution. While 76 per cent of the LDP members in the Upper House support Mr Abe’s idea of revising Article 96 of the Constitution to make it easier to initiate future constitutional revisions, 80 per cent of New Komeito representatives expressed objections, according to the Asahi Shimbun and Mr Taniguchi.

While the LDP likes to turn Japan into a “normal nation” capable of undertaking international duties more proactively, the New Komeito has a strong “pacifist” inclination based on its close relationship with a Buddhist organisation called Soka Gakkai.

Cautious approach

SO FAR, Mr Abe seems to have understood the message. After the election, he acknowledged the lack of national consensus on the constitutional amendment, and expressed his intention to engage in serious national discussions on the issue.

He knows well that the Japanese people voted for the LDP not because they loved it but because opposition parties were not sufficiently attractive. The likelihood is that Mr Abe will play it safe and focus on the issues that the Japanese people care about most.

The July election results dealt a major blow to the health of the two-party system that was gradually taking root in Japan. The leading opposition DPJ suffered a disastrous loss, winning only 17 seats, down from the previous 44. Newly emerging reformist parties such as Your Party and the Japan Restoration (Reformist) Party (JRP) did a good job and more than doubled their seats. But, the emergence of new parties, combined with the decline of the DPJ, has created a situation where there are a number of small and weak opposition parties.

Worse yet, opposition parties contend among themselves. While Your Party and the JRP stand to the right of the LDP on the political spectrum, the Communists and Social Democrats are far more left-wing than the LDP’s liberal coalition partner, New Komeito. The moderate DPJ stands in the middle between the LDP and New Komeito, making it difficult for the DPJ to distinguish itself from the ruling coalition. Small and fragmented, opposition parties have become susceptible to the divide-and-rule tactics that the LDP is likely to employ.

Challenges ahead

ALTHOUGH Mr Abe’s position seems to be strong right now, there are challenges ahead.

First, he must decide whether to raise the consumption tax from its current 5 per cent to 8 per cent. A consumption tax hike might wipe out the fruits of expansionary Abenomics economic policy. On the other hand, a decision to postpone it could seriously undermine the government’s financial position.

Second, although Mr Abe’s physical condition has remained stable, he still suffers from an intermittent disease called ulcerative colitis. The possibility that he may once again suffer from a period of exacerbated symptoms as he did in 2007 cannot be ruled out.

Finally, international crises might get him in trouble. The Sino-Japanese stand-off in the vicinity of the Senkaku Islands (called Diaoyu Islands by the Chinese) still continues, and can escalate into skirmishes and clashes.

If that happens, Mr Abe will be forced to undertake a tricky business of playing it tough without further escalating the situation.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is associate professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (Grips) in Tokyo, where he is director of the Security and International Studies Programme.

By Invitation features expert views from opinion leaders in the region and Singapore.