A Japanese revival

A Japanese revival

After Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe surprised the country by dissolving the lower house more than a year before its term was to end and called for snap polls on October 22, the ruling coalition consisting of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its junior partner Komeito scored a resounding victory by securing 310 seats, or a two-thirds majority in the 465-seat lower chamber. This will help Abe initiate one of his main agendas of constitutional amendment. He has already identified a host of ideas on which policy-making would gain urgency.

Following the landslide victory, his first move to solidify grip on power has been achieved. His government's popular rating was dented somewhat by alleged scandals, including suspected cronyism involving the Kake Educational Institution. That has now been overcome. Abe seems is determined to remain in power for a considerably long period and emerge as a "super administrator" and deliver results in domestic and foreign affairs. His aim is to remain president of the LDP by winning a third consecutive term in the autumn of 2018, thereby securing the post through September 2021. He has his eyes set on seeing the country through the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and create a "beautiful" Japan in the process, much different from what it was in 1964 when it first hosted the Games.

On the domestic front, his first priority would be to craft a budget for fiscal 2018 and allocate funding with priority on measures to achieve policy goals included in the LDP's election pledges, such as a "revolution in human resources development". Enactment of legislation related to reform in working norms is another priority. This was put on hold because the house was dissolved prematurely. This legislation centres on setting a cap on working overtime, with violators subject to penalties, and achieving an "equal pay for equal work" system. It also covers the introduction of a "post-hourly wage" system in which certain high-income professionals are exempt from work-hour regulations. Many companies make employees put in extra hours, leading to increase in stress. The recent case of a young woman employee in Dentsu committing suicide because of too much work in office made national headlines.

Abe is likely to retain most of his last cabinet, since it was only in August that he had made changes to it. Though there are factions within the party, with some faction leaders eyeing his job, none of them pose any challenge to him. This situation emboldens Abe to aim for a third term as party president in 2018.

Raising the consumption tax from the current 8% to 10% in October 2019 and reallocating revenue from the tax hike for such measures as making preschool education free is another priority for the new Abe government. The quantum of additional revenue to be appropriated for such measures needs to be discussed in advance. The ruling coalition and the opposition have different positions on this issue. The ruling coalition had made its position clear during the election campaign that it would implement the tax hike plan and change what use the extra revenues were put to. This will be a shift from using the money for reductions in deficit-covering bonds to such objectives as the introduction of free education. Abe has not, however, advanced a new fiscal reconstruction target yet. On the other hand, Kibo no To, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and Ishin no Kai called for freezing the tax increase, offering no alternative proposal to raise revenue.

Enactment of constitutional revision, particularly Article 9, is a major objective of Abe government. Even here, some factions within the LDP hold positions contrary to that of Abe. For example, former LDP Secretary General and former defence minister Shigeru Ishiba, viewed as a post-Abe hopeful, opposes Abe's revision plan. But with only 20 lawmakers in his faction, Ishiba can pose no real challenge to Abe.

Abe is likely to use all opportunities to implement his "Abenomics" growth strategy,  centred on the hyper-easy monetary regime, with an economic policy package that aims at measures for the rapidly declining birth rate and ageing population, and preparation to strengthen the country's security environment. A consensus is building among much of the political spectrum about strengthening the nation's security in the wake of provocative missile launches by North Korea, two of which flew over the northern island of Hokkaido. There is also less willingness and reluctance on depending entirely on the US for the defence of the country. Even US President Donald Trump has been urging the two Asian allies – Japan and South Korea – to shoulder greater security responsibilities and lessen dependence on the US, which is why raising the defence profile for the country's security is gaining greater currency. Moreover, China has been a bully on territorial issues, particularly on the Senkaku Island.

The previous Abe government has already passed security-related legislation and the dynamic of confrontation between the ruling and opposition parties changed after Yuriko Koike's Kibo no To approved the security-related laws. Ishin, too, has shown a certain level of understanding for the legislation. Though the JCP, CDPJ and SDP insist on scrapping the legislation, their influence on policy-making is marginal. The opposition is in utter disarray and is described by the Japanese expression "dosho imu", meaning having different dreams in the same bed.

Now, the Self-Defence Forces can enjoy greater freedom and carry out activities based on the legislation, such as protection of US vessels. The growing threat from North Korea, including a threat to "sink" Japan, coupled with China's assertiveness, has only strengthened Abe's hands. The next logical step for Abe is to work vigorously to revise the US-imposed constitution, particularly Article 9.

What does Abe's victory mean for India? It is good news. With the personal bonding between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Abe, and more synergies being discovered, one can expect a robust relationship between the two countries in all dimensions.

(The writer is currently ICCR India Chair Visiting Professor at Reitaku University, Japan)

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