Japan Election: Abe’s New Voter Mandate

Japan Election: Abe’s New Voter Mandate
Photo Credit: Reuters/達志影像

What you need to know

Voters in Japan may not be entirely happy with Abenomics, but they did not see a credible alternative in the opposition parties.

The Upper House election ended in a sweeping victory for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition. Combined with the seats not contested in Sunday’s race, the Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito alliance, along with other forces and independents in favor of a constitutional amendment, secured a two-thirds majority of the 242-seat Upper House, clearing the hurdle for initiating an amendment to the Constitution in both chambers of the Diet for the first time in postwar history.

Whether the election result indicates voters’ resounding endorsement of Abe’s trademark economic policies that the prime minister sought and claimed to have obtained in the campaign is unclear. What seems evident from the outcome is that even though voters may not be entirely happy with Abenomics, they did not see a credible alternative in the opposition parties.

It was Abe’s fourth-straight victory in national elections at the helm of the LDP. But the LDP’s gains in Sunday’s triennial election, in which half of the Upper House seats were up for grabs, did not match the party’s robust performance in the previous race three years ago. The LDP-Komeito bloc won well above the majority of the contested seats — which Abe set as a target before the campaign began — but the LDP alone fell just slightly short of regaining the single-party majority in the Upper House that it lost in 1989.

As in the 2013 race and the 2014 Lower House election, Abe said what’s at stake is whether voters would endorse Abenomics. Three and a half years after the launch of the much-touted economic policies, growth in Japan remains uneven and fragile, with worrying signs that the yen’s recent upturn may erode gains in corporate earnings. Media surveys show a majority of respondents saying they do not believe Abenomics will change the economy for the better.

Just as he did going into the 2014 race, Abe postponed the consumption tax hike to 10% for a second time, citing a risk of global slowdowns derailing his administration’s bid to bust deflation. Critics and opposition parties argued that the decision in itself is proof that Abenomics has failed to turn the economy around — a charge denied by Abe, who dared the opposition to come up with an alternative. The lackluster performance of the opposition parties — though better than the 2013 result — appears to prove that they could not.

The Democratic Party had 43 seats going into the campaign and emerged with only 32 — although the outcome was a sharp improvement over the meager 17 seats that its predecessor, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), won in the 2013 race. The top opposition party still seems a long way away from regaining the popular trust it lost over the failures of the DPJ-led administration from 2009 to 2012.

The joint campaigns that the Democratic Party forged with three other opposition forces in crucial electoral districts ended with mixed results. The campaign cooperation in all 32 constituencies where one seat apiece was up for grabs — which held the key to the overall election results — was realized mostly as the Japanese Communist Party withdrew its candidates to endorse those fielded by the Democratic Party and independents backed by civic groups. The move was based on past lessons that showed only the LDP benefited when opposition parties competed with each other in such winner-take-all districts.

These opposition candidates managed to win in 11 of the 32 constituencies — indeed an improvement from the LDP’s sweep of 29 of 31 districts in the 2013 race. But the joint campaign — in which the opposition parties failed to present a common policy platform except to oppose a constitutional amendment under Abe’s watch and a call for the abolition of the security legislation enacted last year — was not effective enough to turn the tide of the overall election. The parties should assess the outcome to determine what was lacking in their joint endeavor.

Abe’s ruling coalition, meanwhile, should not take Sunday’s election result as a mandate from voters to push for amending the Constitution. Abe — who had in recent months been vocally calling for an amendment, including that of the war-renouncing Article 9, and openly saying that he wants to revise the Constitution while he is in office — was essentially mum on the issue during the campaign. Other leaders in the LDP and Komeito played it down as a campaign issue — likely afraid that the issue could alienate the voters.

The two-thirds majority that the pro-amendment forces gained in the Upper House, along with the similar majority that the LDP-Komeito bloc already has in the Lower House, sets the stage for the parties to initiate an amendment, which then must be approved by a majority of voters in a national referendum. However, none of the parties have come up with specific proposals on which part of the Constitution should be changed, how or why. Abe says the LDP’s draft amendment, which was released in 2012 while the party was out of power and calls for sweeping revisions including Article 9, will be a “basis for discussions” to build a consensus among parties. No consensus has emerged either among the pro-amendment forces on what to amend. The time is far from ripe for the parties to ask voters to render a judgment on an amendment.

Sunday’s election result may have opened a window of opportunity for the pro-amendment political forces. But that does not mean amending the Constitution should now be a priority. The fact that none of the forces made it a campaign issue is proof that there is no urgency to revising the Constitution. Abe asked for a vote of confidence in Abenomics in the race — and was rewarded with the election win. He should realize that voters prefer political stability and a steady implementation of the steps he promised to spur the economy. The economy — including the reforms that he has promised but not yet delivered — should be the priority on which the prime minister expend the political resources of his coalition’s bolstered Diet majority.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this editorial. The original can be found here.

First Editor: Edward White
Second Editor: J. Michael Cole