The political stakes are rising in Japan
TOKYO - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe opened the current session of the Diet (parliament) by making it clear that he will give top priority to revising the US-written constitution. As a step toward that goal, Abe said he wanted the Diet to pass for the necessary legislation enabling popular referendum on any constitutional changes.
Earlier this month, the prime minister had already declared that he would make constitutional amendments the key issue in the upcoming election for the House of Councilors, the Diet's upper house. The current Diet session ends in June, after which the members will adjourn to campaign in the upper house election in July.
The stakes are high. This will be the first electoral test for Abe since taking office as national premier and president of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). It is also a test for the main opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa, who took over the leadership of the Democratic Party of Japan (DJP) last April, seven months after the party's electoral debacle in 2005 at the hands of former premier Junichiro Koizumi.
Abe, who started off with public-approval ratings in the 70% range, has been steadily losing popularity because of some scandals in his cabinet. The conservative wing has also begun to question his nationalist credentials because of conciliatory gestures toward China he made soon after taking office. So a bad showing could seriously undermine his ability to govern or, in the worst case, could lead to his resignation.
Many analysts say Abe has decided to make constitutional revision a key issue in the upcoming Upper House election for fear of further alienating disgruntled conservatives. Writing a new charter and eliminating the war-renouncing article is a major cause for the LDP right wing. No previous premier has ever made a pledge to make constitutional revisions a key election issue.
Unlike the Lower House, which the prime minister can dissolve at will in the parliamentary fashion, the Upper House sticks to a fixed electoral cycle. One-half of the 242 members are up for election every three years. The premier can dissolve the Lower House and hold a double election concurrently, but that seems unlikely this year, given the LDP's huge majority.
The Upper House election will be preceded by unified local elections across the country in April, which are widely seen as a harbinger of results of the national elections. The parties will also make alliances for these elections that presage the jockeying in the big show in July.
At the LDP's annual convention this month, Abe emphasized the need to beat opposition parties in the upcoming local and national elections, which he said "will decide the fate of politics. We'll fight these battles fairly and proudly announce to people the course we're hoping to pursue. By doing that, we'll definitely win," he said.
Meanwhile, the DPJ pledged at its own annual convention this month that it will deprive the LDP-led coalition of a majority in the Upper House as a prelude to ousting it from power in an early election for the House of Representatives, the more powerful lower house of Japan's bicameral parliament.
Abe took office last September, succeeding Koizumi. He has named his administration the "nation-building cabinet" and vowed to pursue a more assertive foreign policy and called for revising the post-World War II pacifist constitution drafted by the US occupation forces. The constitutional revisions would allow the country to take a higher profile militarily on the global stage.
But actually getting revisions passed is a tricky proposition. Any revision requires a two-thirds majority vote in both houses of the Diet. The LDP-Komeito coalition has such a majority in the Lower House, but the Komeito is cool to the idea. The DJP is open to the idea of revisions, but would not likely want to fall in line with LDP plans without getting some advantages.
Indeed, opposition leader Ozawa, a former LDP bigwig, has long been an advocate of constitutional reform.
The LDP-led coalition wants to enact the referendum enabling bill after revising it through consultations with the DPJ. But although many opposition party members favor enacting such a bill - and even revising the constitution - the DPJ leaders fear that cooperating for the passage of the bill would only benefit the coalition ahead of the crucial election in July.
In addition, the DPJ does not want to undermine a united front among the opposition parties against the ruling coalition. The other, smaller opposition forces, including the Socialist and Communist parties, are vehemently opposed to any constitutional revisions and have urged the DPJ to oppose a referendum bill.
Meanwhile, the opposition camp, led by the DPJ, has its own ideas about what issues should be stressed in the run-up to the July polls. It is poised to attack the LDP-led coalition over the widening gap in income among Japanese as well as over the problems of corruption in politics amid public outcry over a spate of money-related scandals involving LDP politicians. They argue that the widening gap is a direct result of Koizumi's reforms.
At present, the LDP-New Komeito coalition has a majority of 136 seats in the 242-seat Upper House, with 112 held by the LDP and 24 by New Komeito. The biggest opposition DPJ has 80 seats and the remaining seats are held by smaller parties and independents. An Upper House lawmaker's term is six years.
At the moment, the election math seems to favor the opposition. The 121 seats up for re-election this year were won in the summer of 2001, shortly after Koizumi took the helm of the LDP, and the candidates benefited from "Koizumi fever" among voters. In that election, the LDP won 64 seats, more than half of the seats at stake.
In the last Upper House election in the summer of 2004, however, the LDP-New Komeito coalition failed to win a majority of the seats contested, together gaining 60 seats. What was more shocking for the LDP - and for the then LDP secretary general, Abe, in particular - the LDP won only 49 seats, significantly down from 2001 election and even fewer than the 50 seats the DPJ won.
Declining faith in LDP - and DPJ
The Abe administration got off to a good start last autumn. In the last extraordinary Diet session, which elected him as Japan's new leader, key bills strongly pushed by Abe's ruling coalition were enacted.
The 1947 Fundamental Law of Education was revised for the first time to instill patriotism among students at school. The Defense Agency was upgraded to a full ministry, more than five decades after its inception, and the "primary duties" of the Self-Defense Forces, which had been limited to national defense and disaster relief at home, were expanded to include overseas peacekeeping operations.
But public approval ratings for the Abe cabinet, which registered high levels of about 70% immediately after it was inaugurated, have been on a steady decline, casting a pall over his and his coalition's fortunes ahead of the election. According to an opinion poll by the Asahi Shimbun, a leading national daily, published on Wednesday, only 39% of respondents supported the Abe cabinet, the first time the figure has fallen below 40%.
The precipitous decline in public support can be largely attributed to such problems as welcoming back to the party the members who bucked Koizumi on postal reform and the resignation of a cabinet minister, among other issues. Late last month Junichiro Santa resigned from his post as state minister for administrative reform after the discovery of inaccurate accounting records in his political-funds report.
Since the beginning of the year, two cabinet ministers - Education, Science and Technology Minister Brunei Buskin and Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Toshiba Matsuda - have come under suspicion for fiddling the accounts in their political-fund reports. The submission of these reports is mandatory for politicians and political organizations. It is felt that Abe did not reproach his ministers and in effect kept his head buried in the sand.
Abe's predecessor Koizumi roared into office in April 2001 with a vow to "destroy the old LDP". His combative style in the fight against intra-party opponents of his reform drive - whom he labeled "old-guard conservatives" or "resistance forces" - earned him unusually strong support among Japanese, including the rapidly growing number of independent voters who claim no party allegiance. This in turn provided him with much-needed ammunition to push through reform programs.
During his more than five years in office, Koizumi also made many surprise decisions, which also helped boost his public support. Among those surprises were the dissolution of the Lower House for a general election as a political gamble aimed at pushing through postal reforms and two trips to Pyongyang for talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.
Some think that the somewhat unexciting Abe needs an injection of Koizumi-like pizzazz. Reform-minded writer Naoki Inose reportedly advised Abe last week to "project his image [as a leader who is] fighting it out". Inose was closely involved in Koizumi's reform of road and highway public corporations aimed at doing away with wasteful public-works projects - usually vote winners for the LDP in rural areas.
But Abe apparently does not have the slightest intention of buying Inose's proposal. He has repeatedly said that he will adopt "standard tactics" of implementing policies and producing results. At the recent annual convention of the LDP, Abe said of the upcoming local and national elections, "I will fight in a straightforward manner. If we explain our achievements to the people in a way that they can easily understand, I believe we will definitely win."
But the DPJ is not immune to criticism over financial propriety. Giichi Tsunoda, vice president of the Upper House hailing from the DPJ, is suspected of having failed to declare some political funds donated to his supporters group. Even DPJ president Ichiro Ozawa reported about 415 million yen (more than US$3.4 million) in office expenses for his political-funds report. Ozawa has clumsily tried to justify the 415 million yen, saying it was used to construct housing for his secretaries, thus further complicating the situation.
There is concern within the DPJ that if the party lets up in its attacks on the ruling coalition over the financial scandals, voters will turn their back on the DPJ. Under pressure within the DPJ, Tsunoda resigned as the Upper House vice president on Friday.
The bottom line is that the DPJ has not benefited from the LDP's troubles and fall in popularity. According to recent opinion polls, the DPJ has seen its public support rise only slightly. This means that the party has failed to win over people who have withdrawn their support from Abe's LDP.
In a development that sent shock waves through Japanese political circles, entertainer Sonomanma Higashi handily won last Sunday's gubernatorial election in Miyazaki prefecture, western Japan, by running as an independent. Higashi, an apprentice of comedian and film director "Beat" Takeshi Kitano, beat two former central government bureaucrats - one backed by the LDP-led coalition and the other by two opposition parties, including the DPJ. The results were widely taken as showing profound distrust of the existing political parties among Japanese voters.
But it may be that voters are more concerned about pocketbook issues than the constitutional revisions. One of Koizumi's slogans was, "There will be no economic growth without reform." One of Abe's slogans is, "There will be no future for Japan without growth." The Japanese economy is renewing the record postwar growth spell. But the benefits of the current economic expansion have yet to filter through into households as well as small businesses and rural areas fully.
Personal consumption remains weak as most Japanese workers have not seen their wages rise during the current economic expansion. In addition, although Koizumi is widely credited for beating deflation and turning around the ailing economy, critics say his laissez-faire, market-oriented structural-reform program has left the negative legacy of a widening gap in society, especially between rich and poor. Abe has vowed to address the disparity issue, but he has yet to produce tangible results.
The opinion poll by the Asahi Shimbun published on Wednesday showed that 50% of the respondents now perceive Abe as a "politician who is out of touch with the public sentiment". A whopping 89% said they cannot feel their income has grown, while 48% said it is "inappropriate" that Abe has picked constitutional revisions as an Upper House election issue.
Apparently bearing in mind growing criticism of his economic policies, which are widely seen as being heavily in favor of corporations, Abe said at the recent LDP convention, "Economic growth is not for business enterprises, it is for the public ... Therefore, I would like to do my best to make the economic recovery extend to households."
Speaking as a guest at the same party convention, even Akihiro Ota, head of the LDP's junior coalition partner New Komeito, said, "I want the LDP to consider ordinary people and small and medium-sized companies, which is our party's standpoint."
For fear of drawing an angry backlash from many workers in the upcoming Upper House race, the LDP-led coalition has already given up the idea of presenting to the current ordinary Diet session a bill for what is called the Japanese version of "white-collar exemption", which was to do away with overtime pay for company employees in managerial and related positions (see All work and no pay, January 6).
So on the surface, the DPJ's strategy of making the widening income gap a key election issue may look more promising than Abe's focus on constitutional revisions. Issues closely related to people's daily life, especially the increasingly uncertain future of the nation's social security system, have been matters of greatest concern for voters in recent national as well as local elections. It remains to be seen, however, whether the DPJ's election strategy will work as fully as it expects.
Rehabilitating the creaking social-security system, including pensions, medical insurance and nursing-care insurance for the elderly, has emerged as a pressing task for the government, amid the rapid aging of society and continued decline in birth rates. Government finances remain in dire straits. Japan's fiscal condition is the worst among major industrialized economies, with the deficits held by the central and local governments totaling a staggering 1 quadrillion yen ($9 trillion). This figure translates into about 8.3 million yen ($68,700) per person in a nation of about 127 million people.
Many critics charge that both the LDP-led coalition and the DPJ are irresponsible because the former has opted to steer clear of a possible hike in the currently 5% consumption tax until after the July Upper House election and the latter has dropped its earlier proposal for an increase in the tax rate to 8%. Many experts say - and even many voters feel - that a hike in the consumption tax will become inevitable in the not-so-distant future to finance rising social-security costs and stem an even further rise in government debts.
Hisane Masaki is a Tokyo-based journalist, commentator and scholar on international politics and economy. Masaki's e-mail address is [email protected]