A Lost Opportunity: Election outcome leads Japan further down the wrong road

Beijing Review | 作者: Shi Yongming | 时间: 2017-11-09 | 责编: Wang Jiapei
Adjust font size: + -

Japan just concluded its 49th general election of members of the House of Representatives, the lower house of Japan's national legislature, in late October. Called at short notice, the event lacked suspense. Although the Party of Hope (PoH), led by newly-elected Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, at one point posed a threat to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in the end, the ruling camp comprising the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its junior partner, the Komeito Party, won two thirds of the votes.

Japan's media attributed such a result to the feckless opposition. As a matter of fact, the failure of the opposition just reflects a loss for the whole of Japanese society. Under such circumstances, people usually have two choices: one is to keep silent for the sake of stability; and the other is to call for reform, which may lead to disorder. Obviously, most voters chose stability and voted for the LDP despite not liking Abe very much. The electorate would rather stick with the unsatisfactory LDP and continue in the clichéd political rut than vote for the PoH, which had no clear political direction. So by this election, Abe has won the opportunity to realize his political ambitions.

An anti-democratic election

Abe has actively promoted values diplomacy in international relations as if he were a spokesperson for the Western concept of "universal values." However, his domestic governance actually goes against the values he promotes in his diplomatic rhetoric and betrays the essence of it.

In Western governments with a ministerial cabinet, the head of government is usually empowered to dissolve parliament when division of opinion emerges between the executive head and members of the legislature. And through re-election, the government can gain popular support, guaranteeing democracy in these nations.

However, Abe dissolved parliament not because of differences of opinion between the various parties. As the LDP enjoyed an absolute majority in the lower house, it could easily neglect objections of opposition parties. For example, new security laws were passed in 2015 after fierce wrangling and strife, and the ruling bloc rammed through an amendment to the Law on Punishment of Organized Crimes on June 15 this year without discussing it with opposition parties.

Then why did Abe call the snap election, as it was unnecessary and a total waste of public resources? The answer is: to shirk the political and legal repercussions of scandals related to illegal transfer of state assets to private organizations. The Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Gakuen scandals negatively affected Abe's image, dragging his support rating down to 26 percent, a new low during his second term as prime minister, while raising his disapproval rating as high as 56 percent.

Despite the rising voices of disapproval, Abe successfully maintained his position based on the LDP's absolute parliamentary majority. Later, as the situation on the Korean Peninsula intensified, Abe exaggerated the threat from North Korea to shift public attention away from the two scandals, which contributed to an upswing in his support rating. Given such favorable timing, it was no surprise that Abe chose to hold the snap election to shy away from parliamentary accountability.

However, after this election, Japan's democracy and law-based governance must undergo a test. Can Abe escape legal and political responsibility for the Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Gakuen scandals through the election of a new parliament? Will the principle of rule by majority be allowed to overshadow the nation's legal system?

Abe's monopoly of power

Why did Abe still have the courage to hold the snap election when he was haunted by high disapproval ratings? The reason is that the LDP came to dominance in the parliament during two decades of political integration following the Cold War, and inside the LDP, no one else can compete with Abe. That is to say, limited choices were on the table for Japan's electorate.

Undemocratic practices in Japan's political party system are rooted in events following World War II. Faced with the intensification of the Cold War and the integration of Japan's left-wing parties, the two conservative parties—the Liberal Party and the Democratic Party—merged to form the LDP in 1955. Although the conservative LDP, with constitutional revision high on its agenda, had never gained two thirds of the lower-chamber seats before the latest election, it has maintained dominance inside the parliament.

After the Cold War, the popularity of Japan's left-wing parties declined and political struggle mostly happened between different factions inside the LDP. This led to the defection of many party members, resulting in the LDP losing power to the Japan New Party in 1993 and to the Democratic Party in 2009. However, both of these parties were formed by defection of non-mainstream LDP members, and both had a similar political ideology to that of the LDP. So the final outcome of the integration and division was the LDP strengthening its power and becoming more focused on its internal solidarity and enhancing the power of the party leader. The public, for its part, never easily trusts migratory new parties.

In the recent election, Koike's PoH was unable to break the mold as it failed to put forward any unique policy, let alone propose how to achieve a better future, and simply opposed Abe's strongman image. On the most critical issue—amendment of Japan's Constitution—Koike holds a firm pro-revision attitude and excludes people who hold the contrary view from her party. Although the PoH once drew great public attention, it could not pose a serious threat to Abe, as its political stance is similar to that of the LDP.

A lost Japan

Abe set Constitution amendment as the core issue of this election, yet mostly avoided talking about it during his campaign. Instead, he attracted voters by promising economic development and misguided them by exaggerating the threat of North Korea. However, Japanese voters were not fooled. They voted for the LDP for the sake of political stability, not because they support revision of the Constitution. Under the LDP's long-term governance and influence, Japanese society has gradually lost vitality. Instead of exploring a new world, many Japanese would rather recall Japan's "glorious history" by voting for the LDP. This is the real background of the LDP's electoral victory.

Barring any accident, Abe has won another four-year term as prime minister. His core political objective is to revise the pacifist Constitution "imposed" on Japan and legalize the nation's efforts to revive its military power. This has also been the LDP's mission since its establishment. But if this ambition is achieved, what is Japan's next step?

Japan and Western countries believe that the conclusion of the Cold War marked the absolute victory of Western liberal democracy, thus they are used to maintaining their privilege in the world instead of seeking new political progress.

In the context, the U.S. allowed Japan to adopt denial of its aggressive, militaristic history as the spiritual pillar of its future development, and even indulged the Japanese Government in its doing so. Under its right-wing political leadership, represented by Abe, Japan may seem powerful, but its soul will ultimately be hollowed out, and it will walk a dangerous path. The final hope for Japan rests on it being awoken by its conscience.




Shi Yongming is an associate researcher of the Asia-Pacific region at the China Institute of International Studies.




Source: Beijing Review, NO. 45 November 9, 2017.