international analysis and commentary

Japan’s outlook after the conservative victory

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Numbers speak for themselves; in the elections held on December 16th in Japan the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) headed by Shinzo Abe regained control of the Lower House of the Diet by winning 294 seats out of 480, whilst the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) was ousted by losing three-quarters of the seats it previously held. The LDP alongside its coalition partner New Komeito now holds a huge two-thirds majority of 325, whilst the DPJ has 57 seats and the newly formed Japan Restoration Party (JRP) gained an impressive 54 seats.

Although this election has radically reshaped the seats of the lower chamber, Abe must maneuver tactically if political stability is to return to the country. Landslide victories of this size are more common in Japan than in other comparable democracies. The DPJ had won in a similar manner in 2009 but this did not prevent it from changing three Prime Ministers in as many years. Turning further back to Koizumi’s victory in 2005, the LDP was unable to govern effectively despite an overwhelming majority. Again three Prime Ministers, Shinzo Abe, Yasuo Fukuda and Taro Aso succeeded in just over three years. 

One reason for such instability is that Japanese voters are less polarized than in other countries and do not associate with either of the major parties: this allows for huge swings in election results. Furthermore, voters’ apathy runs high. This election had one of the poorest post-war turnouts on record, with only 59% of the public exercising their right to vote, a significant 10% drop from 2009 – a further sign of political disaffection that can lead to future instability.

Despite all this, the LDP is in a very enviable position to effectively pass legislation without too much political wrangling, especially given Abe’s astute political maneuvering skills. After all, he comes from an illustrious political lineage: his father was Foreign Minister, and his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was Prime Minister from 1957 to 1960. Nonetheless, any change will be slow and incremental, especially until the Upper House elections are held in the summer of 2013.

On the domestic policy front Abe’s victory was well received by the financial and business community, as the LDP leader immediately called for further monetary easing by the Bank of Japan to help revive the sluggish economy. On energy policy Abe is against the nuclear phase-out by 2030 advocated by the DPJ, and instead plans on gradually restarting nuclear reactors idled for safety inspections.

Foreign policy is where Abe’s government has some of the greatest sway and at the same time is under a lot of international scrutiny. First and foremost, the LDP staunchly supports the US-Japan alliance, and in the current strategic context this may have major implications for the ongoing reorientation of the country’s security policy. Indeed, with a two-thirds majority the LDP could push through further changes to Japanese security and defense policy. In principle, the LDP should be willing to increase contribution to defense, increase defense expenditure and resolve the issues over the stationing of US military bases in Okinawa, as well as remove the right on the exercise of collective self-defense which should advance security cooperation with the US. Very likely, we will see improved information sharing and interoperability with American forces.

Abe could also further consolidate the “normalization” of Japanese security policy by attempting to revise the famed article 9 of the Japanese Constitution. For instance, one of the issues being hotly debated in Tokyo is whether it is acceptable to alter the name of Japan’s military from the “Self Defense Force” to the “Self Defense Army”. However, to amend the Constitution or change the rules regarding the Constitutional amendments, a two-thirds majority in both chambers is required and a national referendum must be called. Thus Constitutional reform might be a long shot.

It is important to remember that, in spite of the symbolical significance of the “Pacifist” Constitution, Article 9 has not prevented the county from having the fourth largest military budget in the world and participating in peacekeeping operations or engaging in international anti-piracy missions.

The biggest risk in pushing forward with defense reforms is to escalate regional tensions in North East Asia. Broadening the understanding of self-defense to encapsulate collective self-defense could heighten tensions especially with China over the control of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. The last episode, on December 13th saw China fly a small reconnaissance plane of the Chinese State Oceanic Agency into Japanese airspace. This is the first intrusion of this kind, and it remains to be seen if these interferences will continue under the new Japanese administration.

For all the labels – such as hawk, belligerent, staunch nationalist – that have been attached to Abe, his track record in foreign policy is actually quite pragmatic. As Prime Minister in 2006 he did not visit the controversial Yasakuni Shrine (commemorating some of Japan’s WWI war criminals), and during his previous term he actively worked to stabilize Japan-China relations.

2013 is an important year for the regional balance in East Asia, with new administrations in the other key countries – the US, China, and South Korea. Abe’s Japan should be expected to pursue a security policy closely aligned to the US, while trying to correct the country’s anomaly with regard to military power and the constraints on the use of force.