Mandate for Abe's quest to make Japan a military power

Mandate for Abe's quest to make Japan a military power

The Liberal Democratic Party of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has governed Japan in one way or another for all but four of the past 61 years, a winning record that reflects the political inertia of a society that values stability and tradition.

But even by the standards of Japanese politics, Abe’s landslide victory in national elections Sunday was stunning. For the first time, voters gave the Liberal Democrats and their allies more than two-thirds of the seats in Parliament — a supermajority that could allow Abe to realise his long-held ambition of revising the clause in the constitution that renounces war and make Japan a military power capable of global leadership.

Opinion polls show only lacklustre support for Abe’s security agenda or even his programme to revitalise the Japanese economy, but the public appeared unwilling to take another chance on the opposition Democratic Party, which stumbled badly in its last, rare stint in power, most notably in its response to the 2011 earthquake and Fukushima nuclear disaster.

The vote for stability at home, though, is likely to provoke unease across Asia, where memories of Japanese militarism in World War II endure and the prospect of a more assertive Japan will add to worries over China’s territorial ambitions and North Korea’s nuclear programme. In China, Xinhua, the state news agency, warned in a commentary on Monday that the election results “could pose a danger to Japan and regional stability.”

Experts say that Abe’s governing coalition will not be able to push through constitutional revisions immediately, given that some of the partners have differing opinions on what needs to be amended and how. For example, the Liberal Democrats’ main ally, a small Buddhist party, has said that it opposes changes to the clause that renounces war.

At a news conference Monday, Abe said that he intended to press for debate on constitutional revision, though he acknowledged that “it’s not so easy” and added, “I expect the discussion will be deepened.”

Abe’s party, in a draft proposal of a revised constitution, has also recommended amendments to the clause on freedom of speech and the press that could limit these rights in cases deemed dangerous to the public interest. Another proposal would expand emergency powers for the prime minister. Any revision would need to be approved by a majority in a public referendum.

But the party’s victory on Sunday appears to have less to do with its proposals and more to do with the disarray in the opposition Democratic Party. “The people’s distrust towards the Democratic Party is very high,” said Lully Miura, a lecturer on international politics at Tokyo University. “In 2009, the Democratic Party won the government, but they failed and failed and failed, and even once-supporters of the Democratic Party now distrust them.”

Some analysts said the opposition may have overestimated the public’s worries about Abe’s constitutional agenda at a time when so many remain concerned about Japan’s weak economy. Abe, for his part, spent most of his time on the campaign trail exhorting voters to allow his economic plan — called Abenomics — to continue, and he barely mentioned the constitution.

“Probably the opposition parties pushed too much on the constitutional issue as a political agenda,” said Koji Murata, a professor of international relations at Doshisha University in Kyoto who supports constitutional changes. “But people didn’t care about the constitutional agenda in this upper house election.”

Toshio Ogawa, an opposition candidate from Tokyo who narrowly won a seat, said voters might have had a hard time understanding how his party’s economic plans differed from those of the Liberal Democrats. But, he said, “I knew that Abe’s real goals were security and the constitution. So I thought I had to point it out clearly.”
Critics said Abe’s party deliberately played down its agenda on constitutional change. Some also accused the Japanese media, particularly the public broadcaster, NHK, of conspiring to help the governing party and failing to air enough information about the issues at stake in the election.

Voters seemed more interested in staying the course and giving Abe’s economic policies more time to yield results than in the debate over rewriting Japan’s pacifist policies.

Convincing policies
“I want them to accelerate their economic policy to increase more jobs and improve social welfare,” said Akemi Machida, 29, who voted for Liberal Democratic candidates at a polling station in Sagamihara, a suburban town southwest of Tokyo. As for the opposition, she said, “There were no particular alternatives besides the LDP, whose policies sounded more convincing.”

Outside Japan, Abe’s new supermajority is likely to further unsettle an increasingly tense region. South Korea defied China last week by announcing that it would deploy an advanced US missile defence system to protect itself against North Korea. And many in Asia are waiting to see how China and the United States respond to a ruling in a complaint brought by the Philippines challenging Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.

“The Chinese will fear that Abe will find a way to work the system to his advantage,” said Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia and a China expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. At a regular news briefing Monday, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, Lu Kang, said that China and other Asian countries were “concerned about political moves in Japan” because of its past military action in the region.

In South Korea, an editorial in Munhwa Ilbo, a right-leaning newspaper, said the election results “opened the door for a Japan that can go to war,” though it added that a rearmed country “will also help deter North Korea’s nuclear threat and check the rising military power of China.”

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