05.06.2016 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Japan on the Eve of Election

29858284The government of Japan has finally set the exact date (July 10, 2016) for the regular midterm election to the House of Councillors. This time the results of a routine election can have a far-reaching implication not only at the national, but also at the global level.

And it is understandable since the forthcoming election will determine the fate of the 1947 Japanese Constitution. The major strategic target of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, and the aim of the entire political career of its leader Shinso Abe is to introduce amendments to the effective Constitution. Article 9 (the “antimilitary” article) of the country’s basic law is one (but not the only) provision Mr. Abe is looking to amend.

To be able to introduce constitutional amendments, LDP has to hold two thirds of all seats in the upper house of the Parliament (in the lower house LDP has the qualified majority).

The government of the country develops both internal and foreign policies to achieve the said objective.

The antimilitaristic sentiment that still prevails among the Japanese remains the major obstacle the government has to overcome to amend Article 9. This sentiment is neither rooted in some moral or ethical principles nor in the much talked about “anti-military vaccination” of 1945. The Japanese follow it rather for pragmatic reasons.

Without firing a single shot and losing a single solder, Japan (and Germany) managed to achieve the same positions on the global scene in the postwar years, which it had tried to attain by shedding blood of its citizens and people from other countries during WWII. Actually, why change anything in a perfect Constitution drafted by the former enemy (and today’s best friend)? This “enemy-friend” is now itself displeased with its 70-year-old “creative work”. In fact, it first voiced its displeasure during the Korean War. But this is the “enemy-friend’s” problem.

The last opinion polls conducted in April 2016 show that 52% of the respondents oppose amendments to Article 9 (a year ago this number was 55%), while only 27% support the changes (the same number as last year).

Apparently, scarcity of arguments proving the necessity to amend the Constitution prompted Mr. Abe to resort to philosophical reasoning evolving around the ageless issue of “instability of our being.” Most probably, PM’s philosophical rhetoric would not change the way ordinary Japanese see the problem. There is really only one thing that could affect the disposition of the Japanese society—strengthening of military and political position of China in East Asia, and, as a consequence, further aggravation of the relations between Japan and the second global power.

The current government is still supported by half of the country’s population. But a conflict between the strategic objectives of LDP and dominating negative disposition among the population over the issue of amendments to the Constitution (paired with the continuing lagging of “Abenomics,” which 54% of Japanese are skeptical about, according to the April poll) seriously limits PM Abe’s political aspirations, prompting him to put off the implementation of risky political projects. On May 14, Mr. Abe announced that there were no plans for holding a meeting of the Constitutional Reforms Committee, which clearly demonstrated that PM Abe decided not to irritate the electorate before the election.

A ratification of the Transpacific partnership (TPP), which was supposed to be carried out at the present parliamentary session, is not on the agenda any longer either. Instead, it was suggested to review the TPP treaty, which evokes mixed feelings among the citizens and is rejected by all opposition parties, at a special fall session, i.e., after the election. Evidently, the final decision to convene the session will depend on the results of the election.

The Americans opposing the ratification of TPP have not yet expressed their feelings either, and their reaction might be even tougher than that of the Japanese. It would be sufficient to mention that all the key candidates running for president disapprove of the treaty. If this partnership is blocked by its main “sponsor” (the US), it will become irrelevant for Japan as well.

PM Abe’s Cabinet has taken one more step to secure the results of the forthcoming election: the increase of sales tax on the purchase of consumer goods from current 8% to 10% will not be voted on at the upcoming parliamentary session. Originally, this step was supposed to conclude the program on the increase of sales tax from 5% to 10%, which was launched in the summer of 2012.

It is hard to imagine that the electorate would support the concluding phase of the tax increase program. According to experts, the increase of sales tax (even at the initial stage) has already caused a decline in the domestic consumer demand, thus it is not only a hit to the wallet of ordinary Japanese, but also has a negative impact on the economy as a whole.

The expediency of a further increase of the sales tax is contested by Nobel Prize winners Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman, who visited Japan with an advisory mission this spring. Japanese support Mr. Stiglitz’s and Mr. Krugman’s opinion: this April 59% of the population voted against the finalization of the sales tax increase program.

The issue of a possibility of holding a regular election to the Japanese House of Councillors together with the extraordinary election to the House of Representatives (the lower house) has been pending for an extended period of time. The Japanese prime minister has the right to initiate dissolution of the lower house and appoint a date for the re-election.

The main argument in favor of such a decision is obvious. It could prove true that if Japanese domestic and foreign policy problems continue stockpiling, the LDP and the current government will lose support of the electorate, which could turn into a serious problem at the next regular election to the lower house.

The information pertaining to the combined election to the upper and lower houses of the Japanese parliament that leaked to the press was rather controversial. As of the end of May, no final decision has been generated on this issue. However, there is still time left, as the official election campaign starts closer to the end of June.

It seems that the opposition is very serious about the election race this time. The mainstream opposition parties, including the Democratic, Communist and Social Democratic Parties have agreed to collaborate.

And that means that approximately in a month the world will see a fight between two competing forces on the Japanese “political field.” And it should be a thrilling show!

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.