Abe must be bold in carrying out reforms

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

Japan's Prime Minister has won himself four more years but is up against strong resistance from trade unions and farmers

In the Lower House election on Dec 14, Japan's ruling coalition won 326 seats, giving it control of more than two-thirds of the seats in the Lower House of Parliament. The leading Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) grabbed 291 seats and its partner Buddhist Komeito (Clean Party) 35 seats.

As a result, the coalition government has secured a mandate to rule Japan for four more years.

The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) obtained 73 seats, barely maintaining its position as the leading opposition.

The neo-liberal Japan Innovation Party lost the momentum it had in 2012 and stopped at 41 seats. In the election without major policy disagreements among the middle-of-the-road parties, the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) more than doubled the number of seats to 21 with its extremist platform.

Prime Minister and LDP president Shinzo Abe remained strictly a realist throughout the process, leaving no room for error. He pre-empted a possible economic downturn, political scandals and a revival of opposition parties.

By mid-November, everybody was preparing for the local elections scheduled for next April.

Mr Abe caught opposition parties unprepared when he called a snap election on Nov 18.

The announcement came a day after it was revealed that the Japanese economy had contracted 1.6 per cent in the third quarter.

Most economists had predicted growth as the economy was expected to rebound from the big slump in the previous quarter from an April hike in the consumption tax from 5 to 8 per cent.

Mr Abe could have been held responsible for the poor economic performance, but he did not let that happen. He quickly took the opportunity to postpone an additional consumption tax hike to 10 per cent scheduled for next October and used this as an excuse to call an election. The logic: It was an important decision, so he had to seek voters' approval.

It was an odd line of argument, however, for two reasons.

One, the issue at stake was not about imposing an additional burden on taxpayers. There was no need for an election to get them to swallow the decision.

Two, opposition parties supported the tax hike postponement. Nevertheless, Mr Abe asked the question he didn't have to ask, and dissolved the Lower House.

Mr Abe played one more trick on his opponents. While postponing the tax hike, he pledged to raise the consumption tax in April 2017 without conditions.

When the opposition DPJ decided not to set a date for a future tax hike, partly to distinguish itself from the LDP, Mr Abe started to attack the DPJ for lack of fiscal discipline.

Political scandals were slowly haunting Mr Abe before the election. Based on his policy to "create a society in which women shine", he appointed five female parliamentary members to Cabinet positions in September.

However, two of them were forced to resign just a month after their appointment for violating election laws and misusing political funds respectively.

The new Defence Minister, Mr Akinori Eto, came under fire when it was found out that his campaign fund management body had "donated" 3.5 million yen (S$38,400) to Mr Eto. Agriculture Minister Koya Nishikawa spent political funds on products from firms run by his son and relatives.

This month's election helped absolve them of their sins. All four retained their seats.

Economic downturn and political scandals could have undermined the Abe administration, had it not been for the Lower House election. The best defence is a good offence.

Instead of waiting for these troubles to start biting him, Mr Abe chose to take the offensive and prevailed.

In the meantime, the LDP worked hard to maintain the health of its partnership with the Komeito. The LDP agreed to wait until the local elections next April before it starts amending and

enacting laws related to contentious national security policy reforms.

The Komeito supporters are generally sceptical of the government's decision to make Japan more proactive on defence. The LDP has given its friend some leeway.

Mr Abe also strengthened his position outside Tokyo by creating a new ministerial position in charge of "vitalising local economy" in September. He then appointed Mr Shigeru Ishiba, a respected politician and a potential challenger to Mr Abe, to the position. By doing so, he tried to convince local citizens of his commitment to revitalising the economy across Japan and, simultaneously, to contain Mr Ishiba.

On Nov 10, Mr Abe had the first official meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing. China and Japan agreed to set aside their territorial dispute and establish a crisis management mechanism. One of the most important foreign policy challenges was thus removed before the election.

Voter turnout in this election marked a post-war low of 53 per cent, but so be it. It actually helped the LDP and the Komeito - and the JCP - which had large pools of organised votes.

Opposition parties were responsible for their own fate. They criticised Abenomics and contended that exports had not grown significantly despite the big depreciation in the Japanese yen and that real wages were falling.

These contentions are true, but none of the opposition parties offered a realistic alternative to Abenomics.

The ruling coalition has won the election, but a number of major policy challenges lie before it.

The coalition government has just decided to reduce the corporate tax rate by 2.51 percentage points to 32.1 per cent, which is one of the most important elements in Abenomics reforms.

But only 29 per cent of Japanese citizens thought that Abenomics would improve the Japanese economy while 53 per cent of them did not, according to a Nikkei poll this month.

In the coming months, the government's attempt to create a more flexible labour market will face strong resistance from trade unions.

Reforming the agricultural sector by farm amalgamation and commercialisation will not be easy.

At the same time, successful conclusion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement will depend partly on the government's ability to open up Japan's agricultural sector to international competition.

After April, the LDP and the Komeito will have to address contentious national security issues.

Italian Renaissance statesman Niccolo Machiavelli would have praised Mr Abe's audacity and realism in politics.

The question now is whether he can use the same Machiavellian realism to put critical reformist ideas into practice.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

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