Shinzo Abe se­cures strong man­date in Ja­pan's gen­eral elec­tion

The Guardian Australia - - Front Page - Justin McCurry in Tokyo

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.

Pho­to­graph: Franck Ro­bi­chon/EPA

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.

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