Interview: Weak Japan Opposition Loses Ground

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Interview: Weak Japan Opposition Loses Ground

An interview with Donna Weeks on Japan’s election result and its implications for the future of Japanese politics.

Interview: Weak Japan Opposition Loses Ground

Japan’s latest elections delivered a sweeping victory for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose ruling coalition led by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) secured a two-thirds majority in the upper house after winning 70 of 121 seats available in the 242-seat chamber. The Diplomat’s Anthony Fensom spoke to Japan analyst Donna Weeks, political science professor at Tokyo’s Musashino University, on the poll result and its implications for the future of Japanese politics.

The Diplomat: What’s your view on the results of the general elections in Japan?

Donna Weeks: The result really surprised no one. It went pretty much as predicted, the only question being to what extent the LDP and its conservative allies would gain the required two-thirds of upper house seats to pursue constitutional reform.

Who are the biggest winners and losers from this election?

This question really depends on which side of the fence you are on. Obviously, the groups opposing constitutional reform fear they have the most to lose; Abe sees this clearly as approval of his ongoing “Abenomics” reforms (which have mixed reviews) and he can now press ahead with his constitutional agenda (a deliberately low-key part of his campaign).

What are the implications for Japan’s economic and security policies?

Abe seems determined to continue with his economic strategies in spite of the mixed reports. He’s added a little of the potential Brexit impact to add to the urgency of his reforms.

He claims he didn’t need to “openly” campaign on constitutional change, saying it would be debated in Parliament in committee as required and put to a referendum (as required, presently, in the constitution). There is much skepticism about his intention for proper process, however.

The debate is moving well beyond merely changing Article 9 (which even the LDP sees as almost impossible) and highlighting all the other changes intended in the LDP proposal. Opposition is focusing on the changes to people’s rights which presently exist and changes to wording which will shift elements of the Constitution back to be close to its Meiji predecessor.

How do you see the reaction from China, South Korea, and ASEAN?

There will be that political layer that condemns any attempts to remilitarize Japan; there are the economic layers that see it as business as usual.

How might the United States view the election results in terms of Japan-U.S. ties, particularly the issues around Okinawa?

Okinawans voted out an incumbent LDP minister. They are maintaining the rage. Their anger is palpable in TV vox pops and the like. Despite all that is going on however, there doesn’t appear to be much change on the horizon…that is until, of course, we see who is elected president of the United States in November.

The upcoming Tokyo gubernatorial election is now generating plenty of interest – how do you see this playing out?

The Tokyo election has probably garnered more interest and intrigue for Tokyoites than the upper house election. Starting with the forced resignation of [former Governor Yoichi] Masuzoe following a string of queries over the misuse of public monies, the LDP hierarchy (which had backed him originally in his election) wanted to move very fast to neutralize him as an electoral liability.

The surprise then came with the announcement by LDP lawmaker and former Cabinet Minister Koike Yuriko of her intention to stand, with or without LDP endorsement. This caught the LDP hierarchy off-guard and they have not been at all enthusiastic about her intentions.

They have scrabbled about seeking a suitable candidate, including a recently retired bureaucrat, the father of a popular member of a male pop group (clear intentions to capture the youth vote). It seems they have settled on an incumbent MP and former prefectural governor as their choice, though this is expected to disperse the LDP vote.

The opposition parties remain undecided at this stage. Much is at stake with this position since the new governor will likely be in place when Tokyo hosts the Olympics in 2020, and more immediately, will have to travel to Rio to accept the flag at the closing ceremony. Masuzoe had made much of this formality as a reason for him to stay on.

Overall, how do you see Japan’s political and economic outlook in 2016?

Predictions as such are difficult, and often unwise. Barring any major world events, I suspect the Abeconomy will continue along with its present path, a few wobbly trajectories for his much vaunted arrows and perhaps now, with the election over, a resumption of the consumption tax debate. Politically, it is going to be very interesting to observe how Abe uses this majority, to what extent constitutional reform will be openly and transparently debated and the plan for a referendum.

What might the future hold for Abe and his LDP?

Abe’s term has been extended until 2018, and there is talk he seeks to extend it again to 2020 for the Olympics. It certainly demands a lenient interpretation of the two times two-year term rule… nonetheless, there are rustlings in the leadership group as they look beyond post-Abe. Foreign Minister [Fumio] Kishida’s name appears in dispatches though he is more moderate than Abe’s backers. As above, all eyes will be on how he handles this constitutional mandate.

There was much talk previously about a two-party system emerging in Japan — what does the latest result say about this?

The opposition parties remain in a deep funk. They tried different strategies this time including joint tickets in some electorates; they sought to make the argument that this election was about constitutional change, not the economy… and they are all confessing that they failed to fulfill their ambitions.

While it wasn’t a complete rout, and they made some small gains here and there, the non-conservative opposition parties (it should be said, the “conservative” parties will do well in aligning with the LDP), have much to reconsider.

In an electorate where voting is not compulsory, unlike, say Australia, it seems the opposition has difficulty in converting what appears to be opposition and ambivalence about much of Abe’s reform agenda, into people committing to vote.

Perhaps the forthcoming parliamentary debates on the constitution are where they will have to invest their energies and convey their views outside the fishbowl of an election campaign. Town hall meetings, and greater physical and intellectual presence outside the campaigning period might be ways to engage an electorate that one suspects is just waiting to see the opposition take up the cause for limited or no constitutional change. Perhaps a more formalized “coalition” will help too. That will take some working out though.

Finally, how do you see the impact of the youth vote from all the newly registered voters in this poll?

Most of the exit surveys indicated that a majority of 18 and 19 year olds voted for the LDP. This is not surprising and was probably part of the LDP’s strategy in the first place.

Throughout the campaign, Abe skilfully used former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s son, himself now a lawmaker, to “demonstrate” a youthful appeal for the LDP. Koizumi is a skillful and engaging campaigner and this was apparent in footage of his efforts from around the country. I suspect he is being tagged for future leadership.

I’m still formulating some views about the highly visible SEALDs [Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy] student-centered movement and the eventual voting outcomes. As we’ve seen in the recent Australian election, the different pictures painted by social media and mainstream media of the election campaign have some similarities here in Japan.

I am reluctant to criticize the SEALDs (and their spinoff groups) for they have brought a new level of engagement and vitality to the election process. But like the opposition political parties, there seems to be a disjuncture between support for the cause and conversion to actual votes. I can’t blame lack of compulsory voting but political players have a job ahead of them convincing ordinary electors that their votes do count, they can make a difference.