Shinzo Abe secures strong mandate in Japan's general election
Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has secured a strong mandate for his hardline against North Korea and room to push for revision of the country’s pacifist constitution after his party crushed untested opposition parties in Sunday’s general election.
Abe’s Liberal Democratic party [LDP] and its junior coalition partner Komeito were on course to win 311 seats, keeping its two-thirds “supermajority” in the 465-member lower house, an exit poll by TBS television showed. Some other broadcasters had the ruling bloc slightly below the two-thirds mark.
After a day that saw millions of voters brave driving rain and strong winds brought on by Typhoon Lan, Abe’s election gamble appeared to have paid off, after he called an election more than a year earlier than scheduled.
An initial challenge by the Party of Hope, formed only late last month by the populist governor of Tokyo, Yuriko Koike, petered out as prospective supporters stayed with the far more established and conservative LDP.
“The situation in the world is not stable in many aspects and I believe the LDP is the only party we can depend on,” Kyoko Ichida, a Tokyo resident, said after casting her vote.
Other voters registered their opposition to Abe by opting for the newly formed Constitutional Democratic party [CDP]. Exit polls suggested a close race between the CDP and Hope to become the second-largest party.
Hope was expected to win fewer seats than some pundits had predicted at the start of the campaign, but are forecast to end up with enough to signal a shift to the right in the composition of Japan’s powerful lower house.
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.
Abe, who has emerged as Donald Trump’s key ally in the president’s tough line against Pyongyang, said “all options” – including military force – remain on the table.
“At a time when North Korea is threatening us and increasing tensions, we must never waver,” he said in his final campaign speech on Saturday. “We must not yield to the threat of North Korea.”
He had called the snap election in an attempt to shore up support for his administration after a summer in which he battled two cronyism scandals and confronted North Korea over its missile and nuclear weapons programmes.
The threat from North Korea, coupled with Japan’s falling birthrate and ageing society were “national crises” that could only be addressed by giving him another four years in office, he said.
Although the ruling coalition just failed to hold on to their two-thirds supermajority, Sunday’s victory will 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.
Since Japan passed a controversial security law in 2015 allowing its armed forces to engage in collective self-defence – or coming to the aid of the US and other allies overseas – Abe has made it clear he wants to alter the constitution to reflect new threats to national security from a rising China, a nucleararmed North Korea and international terrorism.
The war-renouncing Article 9 of the constitution – written by US occupation authorities after Japan’s defeat in the second world war – makes no mention of the SDF’s status and bans the maintenance of “war potential”.
Abe and his supporters say the revision would merely give official recognition to the status quo, given that loose interpretations of constitution have enabled Japan to build a large and well-equipped military.
But any weakening of its pacifist credo is expected to anger China and South Korea, where many still harbour biter memories of Japanese militarism in the first half of the 20th century. Liberals in Japan, meanwhile, fear that “normalising” the country’s armed forces will lead to their involvement in US-led wars.
Changing the constitution requires a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Japanese Diet and a simple majority in a national referendum. The ruling coalition failed to hold on to its 310-seat supermajority, but Abe is expected to court conservative MPs to win backing for his revision agenda.
That additional support will most likely come from members of the Hope party, which attracted MPs from the Democrats, Japan’s biggest opposition party until, wracked with division, it imploded earlier this month.
Conservative members fled to Koike’s new group, while more liberal MPs joined forces to form the left-of-centre Constitutional Democrats, led by Yukio Edano, Japan’s top government spokesman at the time of the March 2011 nuclear disaster, wants to protect Japan’s pacifist principles and restore “decency” to public life.
“If the ruling coalition falls short of a supermajority, it may slightly embarrass Shinzo Abe, but it will not diminish the impact of the electoral victory on his leadership within the LDP,” Tobias Harris, a Japan analyst at Teneo Intelligence in Washington, said on the eve of the election.
The LDP is due to hold presidential elections next September, but Sunday’s victory means 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.
Analysts said regional tensions centred on North Korea had persuaded many voters not to take a leap into the political unknown. “Factors such as uncertainty over North Korea are likely to drive voters towards the current government, which is seen as the conservative choice,” said Katsunori Kitakura at SuMi Trust financial consultants.
Edano accused Abe of being highhanded in calling an election more than a year early. “What’s at stake now is whether we will have a politics of arrogance or a grassroots politics that lifts society up from the bottom,” he said.
Speaking to voters on a rainsoaked Saturday in Tokyo, Koike appeared to concede that Hope’s challenge had fizzled out. The fledgling party, she said, would instead hold the ruling coalition to account. “We are fighting against the powers that prioritise old policies and vested interests,” said Koike, according to Kyodo news.
After an initial surge in support for her party, Koike – who has long been tipped to become Japan’s first female leader – faced criticism for refusing to resign as governor and run in the election as a potential prime ministerial candidate.
The former news anchor, who has promised to “reset” Japan, reportedly spent election day in Paris attending an event in her role as Tokyo governor.
“As it turned out, the Party of Hope is hopeless,” said Michael Cucek, an adjunct professor at Temple University in Tokyo.
Sunday’s result means Abe is expected to proceed with a controversial rise in the consumption (sales) tax in late 2019. He has said the increase, from 8% to 10%, 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.
As a sop to voters who oppose the tax hike, Abe vowed to spend some of the extra revenue on preschool education and nursing care for the country’s growing population of over-65s.
A woman casts her vote in Japan’s general election. Shinzo Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic party is expected to win more than 300 of the 465 seats.