Japan

A vote for militancy

Print edition : November 24, 2017

Shinzo Abe during his last stump tour for the October 22 general election, in Tokyo on October 21. Photo: TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP

Yukio Edano, head of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan. Photo: AKIO KON/BLOOMBERG

Yuriko Koike, head of the Party of Hope. Photo: STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP

Abe's supporters at the LDP's rally in Tokyo on October 18. Photo: SHIZUO KAMBAYASHI/AP

Shinzo Abe’s LDP coalition wins a two-thirds majority in the Lower House of the Diet, giving him the essential numbers to carry out his plans to revise the pacifist Constitution.

THE gamble taken by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of calling early elections has paid off. He advanced the timing of the general election by almost a year, betting that a fractured opposition would offset his waning personal popularity. He and his close allies were plagued by allegations of personal corruption; some of his senior Ministers even had to resign.

The majority of the Japanese people are alarmed at Abe’s decision to revise the country’s pacifist Constitution. His militaristic pronouncements regarding the crisis in the Korean peninsula helped sway opinion among conservative and older voters. In spite of his plummeting personal political stock in the middle of the year, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its junior electoral ally, the Komeito, got the required two-thirds majority in the 465-member Lower House of the Diet (Parliament) in the elections held on October 22. The LDP-Komeito coalition already has the requisite two-thirds majority in the Upper House.

This majority is essential for re-drafting the Constitution and for the removal of Article 9, which renounces war and formally declares that Japan will not have a standing army. Japan’s Self-Defence Forces have been fulfilling the role of a full-fledged army for more than a decade now. The revised Constitution then has to be subjected to a popular referendum. In order to be approved, the revised Constitution must have the support of a simple majority of voters. Abe had initially set 2020 as the deadline for the revision of the Constitution.

Most observers have said that the results were not so much a victory for Abe as a defeat for a divided opposition. Abe’s personal popularity among the electorate continues to be low despite his party’s thumping victory in the elections. All the same, he is now all set to be the longest-serving Prime Minister in Japan’s post-War history.

The Party of Hope, formed newly under the leadership of Yuriko Koike, the Mayor of Tokyo, came a cropper in the elections, bagging only 49 seats. The Democratic Party (D.P.), which was the main opposition party before Abe called for snap elections, dramatically disbanded in the last week of September and decided to fight the elections under the banner of the Party of Hope. The aim of the party leadership was to put up a united front against the LDP. This led to a great deal of political confusion, much of it engendered by the authoritarian style of Yuriko Koike, who was a leading figure in the LDP until early this year. She is known to share the Prime Minister’s right-wing nationalistic views on many key issues, including that concerning the revision of Article 9.

This was reflected in the Party of Hope’s manifesto, which voiced support for the revision of the Constitution and the elimination of all restraints on the Japanese army from waging war overseas. Many D.P. members of the Diet, who belonged to the left wing of the party, held diametrically opposite views on the issue. To make matters worse, Yuriko Koike set conditions for D.P. legislators who wished to join her new party. She said D.P. members who wished to fight the elections on her party’s ticket would have to sign a personal loyalty pledge that would make them adhere to her basically right-wing agenda. Yuriko Koike conceded that she was responsible for her party’s debacle in the elections. “I would like to clearly say that this is a total defeat,” she told the Japanese media.

A significant section of the D.P. chose to revolt and form a new party called the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ), under the leadership of the former deputy president of the D.P., Yukio Edano, three weeks before the elections. The CDPJ came a creditable second at the hustings, despite the paucity of time and finances necessary to launch a full-fledged campaign. The CDPJ, which calls itself a left-of-centre party, won 57 seats despite being able to put up candidates in only 74 constituencies. Edano said the goal of the CDPJ was to “protect constitutionalism, democracy, liberal society and citizen's livelihoods”. Talking to the media after the elections, Edano said his new party was just getting “started” and that a new “grass-roots movement” was being formed in the country.

The Japanese Communist Party (JCP) saw its seat share decline from 21 seats in the previous Parliament to 12 in the current one. The JCP and the CDPJ had fought the elections on a similar platform. Both the parties opposed the revision of the pacifist Constitution and challenged the “top-down politics” that the LDP has been practising for decades. Edano said the CDPJ would do everything to prevent Japanese troops getting involved in “collective self-defence”, which was shorthand for getting involved in the wars waged by the United States in different parts of the world.

Abe was quick to exult after the results, stating that it was a vindication of his strong line on Korea and his domestic policies. He said the voters had sent a message to North Korea that a strong Japan would no longer be “fooled” by its tactics. The government and the public were no doubt rattled after North Korea test-fired two missiles over Japan. Surrounded by supporters waving the imperialist “rising sun” banner after the results were announced, Abe said North Korea would be “forced to return to the negotiating table”. Abe has been a strong backer of U.S. President Donald Trump’s war-mongering approach towards North Korea.

Crisis in the Korean peninsula

Writing in T he N ew York Times recently, Abe boasted that Japan was fully backing Trump on his handling of the crisis in the Korean peninsula. “I firmly support the U.S. position ‘that all options are on the table’ against North Korea”, he wrote. Trump had threatened in September that he would engulf North Korea “in fire and fury like the world has never seen”. Like his good friend Trump, Abe has ruled out using diplomacy as a tool to defuse the crisis in the Korean peninsula. “Prioritising diplomacy and emphasising the importance of dialogue will not work with North Korea,” Abe wrote. The international community has been stressing on the importance of dialogue with North Korea to get out of the serious diplomatic and military impasse with Pyongyang.

On the issue of overhauling the Constitution, Abe said that he wanted parties such as the Party of Hope to support the proposal. He said that the earlier deadline of 2020 he had announced was flexible and that his government could wait longer if necessary for a broader consensus to evolve. “We won a two-thirds majority as the ruling bloc, but it is necessary to strive to form a wide-ranging agreement among the ruling bloc and the opposition,” he told the media after the results were out. “And then we aim to get the understanding of the people, so that we can gain a majority in the referendum.” The Abe government had already steamrolled laws in 2015 through Parliament that allows Japanese armed forces to participate in “collective self-defence” and aid allies under attack. This side-stepping of the pacifist Constitution had angered the opposition.

Now even the Komeito party seems to be having second thoughts about the revision of the Constitution. After the results were announced, the Komeito said Article 9 should be revised only after getting the main opposition party on board. The CDPJ is the largest opposition party in the Diet. Edano has repeatedly said that preventing the amendment of the Constitution is his foremost priority. He also said that the 2015 laws allowing Japanese military to participate in overseas wars were a violation of the Constitution.

The opposition parties are also angry with the Abe government’s plans to put restrictions on the media. The government had passed a “conspiracy law”, which critics say is a blatant attack on press freedom. The law has been criticised by the United Nations and human rights agencies. They are of the view that the new law will curtail the individual’s right to privacy and his right to dissent. Abe has claimed that the law was necessary to curb terrorist-related activity in the run-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Many prominent Japanese citizens have compared the law with the notorious Peace Preservation Law of 1925. That law allowed the round-up of communists and paved the way for imperial Japan to run amok in Asia.

Abe’s grandiose plans to revise the Constitution and make Japan a military power to reckon with have naturally raised the hackles of its immediate neighbours. China and Korea, which suffered the worst impact of Japan’s brutal occupation, have been loudly protesting against the Abe government’s efforts to re-militarise Japan in coordination with the U.S. China along with Russia has protested against the Abe government’s recent decision to install U.S.-made Aegis Ashore missiles on Japanese soil following the North Korean missile and nuclear tests. The missiles have the capacity to intercept missiles mid-flight above the earth’s atmosphere.

Abe is also a strong proponent of a trilateral military alliance between the U.S., Japan and India. The three countries currently conduct annual joint military exercises. China views this emerging alliance as a hostile one aimed at encircling it militarily. Although Japan’s relations with China are not as fraught as they were sometime back, Abe views the country as a strategic threat. The Abe government has also not yet fully reconciled with the fact that China has overtaken it and now has the second biggest global economy.

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