Abe Seeks Super-Majority
In three months time, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, 64, is set to earn the distinction of being the country’s longest serving prime minister. His current rating among voters is indicated by the nearly two-thirds majority the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) obtained following the July 21election for half of the vacant seats at the upper house election. Voters’ turnout in the election stood at 49 per cent. Only 28 per cent of the candidates were women, and Abe has only one woman in the cabinet.
Abe does not have the super-majority required for his signature ambition to amend the United States-drafted 1947 pacificist constitution. LDP consists of several factions that present a unique and successful example of not cleaning their dirty linen in public. This gives the general public an impression of a united stand and spirit of collective cooperation intact.
Donning the premier’s hat is no longer a big achievement for Abe who is bent on constitutional amendment. His obsession for changing the facificist constitution is not welcomed by many Japanese. LDP winning parliamentary majority does not make a big story considering that only twice and for a total of barely four years since 1955 its rule been interrupted. On the two occasions when the long-ruling party was in the opposition benches, snap elections followed because of the opponents’ inner contradictions.
Will Abe succeed in amending the constitution that was formulated under the US guidance? It is not certain yet unless some in the opposition groups decide to endorse his effort, i.e., if they have significant enough seats to fill the shortage in the next general elections and agree with LDP to put into effect the prime minister’s ambitious goal. Obtaining a two-thirds majority is not a regular occasion.
Against the background of LDP being in power for almost all the years since 1955, it is to its credit that incumbency fatigue has not infected voters. Can the same be said about a prime minister? Holding the chair for a long innings by a leader might prompt people to seek fresh options in what political scientists and analysts call “anti-incumbency factor”. This could affect a general election. However, LDP’s leadership vote on September 20 is likely to be an easy aim for the premier.
Son of a foreign minister and grandchild of a prime minister, Abe has cultivated a fairly impressive international image. He has spoken to the United States President Donald Trump 30 times, including 8 face-to-face meetings since the latter took office in January 2017.
In addition to his quest for constitutional amendment, Abe is keen on resolving the issue of the Kuril Islands populated by some 20,000 people. Held by Russia since World War II, Japan calls the islands Northern Territories while Russia names them Southern Kurils. But revising Japan’s post-World War II constitution is Abe’s chief goal in order to explicitly announce the existence of Japan’s military, now known as the Self-Defense Force. His grandfather, ex-Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, was dismayed by the pacificist constitution as a national humiliation imposed on the country which was defeated in World War II.
On account of the horrendous losses during the last war, Japanese people in general considered pacifism as a revered tenet of their national identity, even if it was the United States that inserted in the constitution a clause renouncing war. In recent years, analysts find that public devotion to pacifism and the long-held attitude to the Japanese military, known as the Self-Defence Forces, has slowly but clearly begun to change. In this, Abe’s explicit wish has made a major contribution.
Under the existing Peace Constitution, seen by many Japanese as a strategy to impose Western values on them, a two-thirds majority from both houses of parliament and a majority of votes in a national referendum would enable the passage of the proposed amendment. Opinion polls indicate Abe’s popularity declining to less than 36 per cent or even 26 per cent two years ago as against 50 per cent seven months earlier. More than 63 per cent of the people wanted change in the LDP leadership when Abe’s term as party president was to end in September last year.
Japanese troops have participated in international peace keeping operations and in non-combatant reconstruction mission in Iraq. Constitutional change would, for the first time since 1945, allow them to fight wars overseas. Whenever Japanese leaders pay visits to Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine honouring millions of Japanese dead that include war criminals, angry reactions flow from South Korea and China. Abe says the shrine is merely a place to remember fallen soldiers. Japan’s harsh rule in China and Korea before World War II has inflicted deep-seated wounds on these countries.
During the war, up to 200,000 “comfort women” were forced to serve Japanese troops as sex slaves. The women were mostly from the Korean Peninsula but were also from China, Thailand, the Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations. There were also women from other Southeast Asian parts, including Thailand.
When Abe in December 2016 paid tribute at Pearl Harbour, where 2,400 American sailors, marines and others were killed in a Japanese military strike in 1941, Beijing Review magazine commented: “Abe should visit China rather than Pearl Harbour. He should go to Nanjing to get to know how much pain the (Nanjing) massacre brought to the Chinese people.”
Whereas there is a good measure of public support for the Abe proposal concerning constitutional change, it alone does not necessarily ensure his party’s margin of popular vote lead in the next general election. A warning comes from the manner in which Tokyo Residents First party humiliated the LDP in July 2017. The elected Mayor is creating a national party called Kibo no To (Party of Hope).
In August 2010, LDP suffered a heavy defeat at the hands of the hurriedly cobbled Democratic Party that was led by Yukio Hatoyama. When unruly intra-party factions led to the collapse of the majority government, snap polls were ordered, enabling the grand old LDP to stage a comeback without even having to sit in the opposition benches for a full term. Under the circumstances, LDP members would have to carefully calculate and weigh the pros and cons before making their strategic decision on the leadership choice for the organisation and candidate selection for general election, failing which voters might hand down an unexpected verdict. Complacency might prove costly for a party having ruled for more than 60 years.
(Former chief editor of The Rising Nepal, P. Kharel has been writing for this daily since 1973)