Millennium Post

A new sun rising for Abe

Benefited from a strong economy and a weak opposition, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Komeito, is on track to take two-thirds in the lower house of Parliament. As a result, the nationalist Abe would be able to extend his reign beyond 2020's Tokyo Olympic Games — making him the longest-ruling Prime Minister in Japan's history. Abe can no doubt attribute part of his success to Japan's economy, which has grown for six consecutive quarters. Three million new jobs were created under Abe. At the same time, unemployment has hit its lowest level in two decades. The business climate can be compared to its peak phase in 1991.

Though many people in Japan complain about stagnating wages, high prices and growing social disparity, this dissatisfaction was probably not enough to create a mood of change. Sexagenarian Abe gambled successfully by calling elections a year early. In the first half of the year, Abe's popularity slumped in the face of several scandals, but after North Korea's missile test over Japan, his popularity ratings rose again as he sought solidarity with Donald Trump. Japan is partially dependent on US military protection, and the nationalist leader speculated that voters would support him given the threat posed by North Korea's nuclear program. Although Japan's opposition realigned itself after Sunday's elections were announced, many of the new political alliances did not manage to put forward candidates and Abe's opponents have not united. And, since the opposition could not present any clear alternatives over the medium term, for example in tax and social policy, the LDP's monopoly of power continued. The only opponent of Abe – who had caused some resistance, was the Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike. When the parliamentary elections were announced last year, Koike — then a member of Abe's LPD — reacted by founding her own right-leaning pro-reform party after joining forces with like-minded politicians in the nominally centrist opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). Her 'Kibo no To' (Party of Hope) dealt a blow to the LPD in elections for Tokyo's metropolitan assembly in July, establishing the charismatic leader as a political force to be reckoned with. But the initial enthusiasm for Koike quickly waned and her party is expected to be on the third place.

It was perhaps the voters quickly realised that Koike's platform did not differ much from Abe's and that she did not stand for change. Notably, Shinzo Abe has secured a strong mandate for his hard line against North Korea and room to push for revision of the country's pacifist constitution. A supermajority would allow Abe to propose changes to the Constitution, which currently restricts its military to a defensive role. Interestingly, after a day that saw millions of voters brave driving rain and powerful winds brought on by Typhoon Lan, Abe's election gamble appeared to have paid off, after he called the vote more than a year earlier than scheduled. While Abe's personal popularity remains low, support for his uncompromising stance on North Korea has risen following the regime's recent launch of two ballistic missiles over the northern island of Hokkaido and its threat to sink Japan. On the other hand, Sunday's victory would keep alive Abe's long-held quest to revise Japan's pacifist constitution to officially recognise the self-defence forces (SDF) as a bona fide military. However, aware of the strength of public opposition, Abe realised to drop his 2020 deadline for the revision. Any weakening of Japan's pacifist credo is expected to anger China and South Korea, where many still harbour bitter memories of Japanese militarism in the first half of the 20th century.

Liberals in Japan, meanwhile, fear that "normalising" the country's armed forces would lead to their involvement in US-led wars. It may be noted that the LDP is due to hold presidential elections September next year and Sunday's victory clearly indicates Abe is virtually assured of retaining the leadership of his party for another three years and going on to become the longest-serving prime minister in Japanese history. He is also expected to proceed with a controversial rise in the consumption or sales tax in late 2019. He had categorically said the increase, from 8 per cent to 10 per cent, is unavoidable if Japan is to meet rising social security costs and, eventually, pay back its huge public debt, now more than double the size of its economy.

However, he might also spend some of the extra revenue on pre-school education and nursing care for the country's growing population of over-65s. Nonetheless, this supermajority would be crucial to Abe's goal of revising the supreme law by 2020. He would certainly legitimie the existence of the SDF. Instead of rewriting the article outright, Abe would prefer to add some corollary to formalise the existence of the SDF.

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