Japan held elections to the House of Councilors (Upper House) for the 124 seats on July 21. As
expected the ruling conservative governing coalition led by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)
with its junior partner Komeito won a solid majority of seats with 71 seats in the 245-member
house. This ensures Prime Minister Abe Shinzo his place in history as Japan’s longest-serving
prime minister at a time when the country faces numerous challenges, including a rapidly aging
population, tensions with neighbours and upcoming trade talks with an unpredictable counterpart
in the White House. With this victory, Abe has ensured political stability amid a fractured
opposition, thereby avoiding a repeat of 2007 when his first term abruptly ended with his
resignation. A two-thirds majority, however, remained eluded.
One thing that must worry is that the two ruling coalition parties lost six of the 77 seats it held prior to the election, though won a solid majority. But with no two-thirds majority, Abe is going to face tough challenges to deal with his long-cherished desire to bring constitutional amendment, particularly the peace clause of Article 9. The LDP won 57 seats, one more than the 56 it secured in the 2016 elections, including a seat won by an independent committed to the party. But it did not come close to the 65 seats it won in the landslide 2013 election.
The voter turnout was 48.8 per cent, second lowest after 1995 poll. The figure is far below the 54.7 percent mark in the previous upper house election in 2016, the first time in 24 years that it dropped below 50 percent since the 1995 upper house election — which marked a record low of 44.52 percent — and the second lowest after the 1995 election.
Having not been able to secure a two-thirds majority, what could be Abe’s immediate priorities? Domestic issues most likely shall keep Abe busy as the voters would expect him to implement his campaign promises. With the long-term aim to revise the Constitution, his next goal shall be to hold national referendum on constitutional revision by September 2021, when his tenure as LDP president ends.
The ruling coalition, Nippon Ishin no Kai and independents, all favourable to amending the Constitution, failed to reach two-thirds, or 164, of the total seats in the upper house that is required to initiate the amendment. Having failed to secure the number of seats needed, Abe needs cooperation from opposition parties. The Constitution calls for the renunciation of war, and Abe has long stated his desire to change it to allow Japan to strengthen its military. Abe strongly feels that constitutional revision is necessary in view of the steady deterioration of the security environment in Japan’s neighborhood.
Japan’s immediate neighbours – China, North and South Korea – could be rejoicing that Abe’s aim to revise the Constitution remains in limbo and would be happy that this remains unrealized. The shadow of history continues to haunt even today and any possibility of Japan becoming a normal state could be a nightmare for those nations that suffered Japanese military brutality during the War. There are also fears that instead of addressing Japan’s security, it could destabilize the region. The consequences to such a possibility could be nightmarish to the larger Indo-Pacific region.
On the foreign policy front, securing critical resources for the country’s economy shall be another priority. With the US-Iran stand-off worsening and tensions building up, Abe failed to mediate when he decided to travel to Tehran to speak with Iran’s Supreme leader and Prime Minister. He is likely to respond positively to Trump’s US-proposed coalition of the willing to guard the Strait of Hormuz in the Middle East.
Other focused areas for Abe are turbo-charging the moribund economy, raising the country’s sluggish birthrate and drastically increasing the proportion of women in management and politics. Abe has said the government will fund child-care by encouraging more women and older people to work, and his party has vowed to raise the country’s consumption tax from 8 to 10 percent in October, as previously scheduled. Five major opposition parties have unanimously voiced their objections to the plan. Future of the pension system is another burning issue that confronts Abe.
Amid such hype, there is a view that Abe’s success stems from lack of a strong opposition rather than a public mandate for his party’s vision. Notwithstanding such skepticism, Abe has worked hard to establish himself as a leader on the world stage. Despite his unpredictability, he has built a working relationship with Trump, improved ties with Chinese President Xi Jinping, deepened bonhomie with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, reached out to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, built close ties with the European leaders and traveled around the world meeting leaders. The only aberration in the foreign policy front seems to be failing to realize a summit with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to resolve the abduction issue and a sort of love-hate relationship with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
Dr. Rajaram Panda is currently Lok Sabha Research Fellow, Parliament of India.