Third Time Lucky?

Beijing Review | 作者: Shi Yongming | 时间: 2018-09-29 | 责编: Wang Jiapei
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With Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe winning his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leadership election on September 20, he will remain at the helm for three more years, on course to becoming the nation's longest-serving prime minister post World War II.

But the third term will also be his last one, since according to LDP regulations, its chief cannot serve for more than three terms. Abe may have no scruples now to pursue his political ambitions. However, Japan's reality indicates that Abe faces many hurdles to his domestic objectives and his diplomatic goals are also in a state of chaos. The way forward will not be a bed of roses.

Frustrated in victory

There were no surprises in the LDP leadership election. Compared with Shigeru Ishiba, a former defense minister who was Abe's contender, Abe's ascendancy was obvious and could not be challenged. Due to the prime minister's sophisticated maneuvering skills, most LDP members chose to follow him out of self-interest. Though plagued by political scandals, the dominant status of Abe could not be shaken in Japan's current political system.

Despite the election victory, Abe and his supporters are not happy. Instead, there is a sense of frustration. Abe's camp had too high expectations and put in too much effort, but the election results belied their expectations.

Through political maneuvering, Abe prolonged his term of office and created a sense of stability in Japanese politics, a rarity after the Cold War. The sense of stability won support for Abe and his camp was confident he would win by a huge margin.

They were strongly against Ishiba and wanted his rout because Ishiba campaigned on a line of "honesty and fairness," attacking Abe over the scandals of Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Gakuen, two school operators alleged to have been given favored treatment because of ties to the prime minister.

Abe and his supporters strengthened internal control and canvassing. Although he garnered 68 percent of the total vote, he failed to reach the expected numbers both in the Diet, Japan's legislature, and at local levels. He hauled in 329 votes from LDP lawmakers, less than the predicted 340. And he won 55 percent of votes from the rank-and-file supporters, far from the original target of 70 percent. All these facts suggested that there was a toss-up between Abe and Ishiba, which made Abe less pleased about the victory.

The election showed Abe's control over LDP lawmakers has weakened and the LDP rank and file's dissatisfaction with him has increased. Also, the political pattern in the post-Abe era might not unfold the way Abe wishes. At the Diet level, there is surging discontent about his long-term rule and authoritarian style. At the local level, there is growing disappointment as Abenomics has failed to deliver tangible results.

While Abe is making plans and hopes to retain his influence after he leaves office, his wish might not come true. There is speculation that he promised to make LDP policy chief Fumio Kishida his successor in exchange for Kishida withdrawing from the election and supporting him. But the election results are not favorable for Kishida's succession.

Although Ishiba's status rose, it doesn't mean he would be the next prime minister. In this election, Shinjiro Koizumi, Chief Deputy Secretary General of the LDP and the son of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, drew extensive attention. Heredity has long been an outstanding factor in Japanese politics with family lineage playing a very important role. Abe himself is an example—he is the son of Shintaro Abe, who was a leading LDP member. Shinjiro Koizumi has become a rising superstar of the LDP. He advocated different voices inside the party and supported Ishiba. In the future, Abe's governance might face more challenges.

Changing the Constitution

Abe is Japan's most ambitious leader after World War II, and his policy can be summarized as reforming the Constitution, forging a strong army, and revitalizing the economy. Japan has achieved some results and progressed in building a strong army with its defense expenditure and advanced weaponry increasing in recent years.

In terms of revitalizing the economy, Abenomics can be said to be a failure. From the point of economic theory, each country's economy is a complicated system in today's globalization. It is absurd to try to make a policy based on one or two traditional economic principles to resolve complex issues.

The Japanese economy has exhibited positive signs in recent years but this is the outcome of global economic recovery. Abenomics has been a slogan to gain support, and its results are not very pleasing, as evidenced by the local support rate in this election. Abe vowed to address deflation in his future term, but it was only a move to woo enterprises and save face.

The Japanese think Abe's priority in his new term should be to restore the economy. But Abe seems to have prioritized amending the Constitution, which has been a core goal during his rule. But he might face a dilemma on this. The harder he pushes, the more resistance he might meet.

First, LDP lawmakers cannot reach an agreement on what to amend. The issue is whether to have the Constitution allow maintaining a national defense force and whether the Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF) can be regarded as a form of national defense force. The Constitution forbids Japan from maintaining a national defense force, putting the legitimacy of the JSDF, established in 1954 under the Ministry of Defense, under controversy. Abe wants to change this situation and amend the Constitution to legitimize the JSDF. Nevertheless, he insists the JSDF should not be counted as a national defense force.

However, this is a just a game of words. The military strength of the JSDF dwarfs that of most countries in the world. Japan has long broken the rules of its pacifist Constitution to establish a military organization system. Seeking to revise the Constitution is more like tearing away the symbolic fig leaf.

Second, the Japanese are more concerned about economic revival than Constitutional amendment. While without a clear solution to economic problems, Abe is eager to push for amending the Constitution, which might meet widespread opposition from the public.

But Abe is still keen to push forward the revision to leave a political legacy. He hopes to hold a referendum on amending the Constitution before the upper house election next summer. This might affect the election, but if he holds the referendum after the election, it will be much harder to push the amendment through as it is unclear if the LDP will be able to maintain its dominance.

Sino-Japanese ties

Japan has long changed its national identity as a peaceful nation. Whether Tokyo revises its Constitution or not, it is now a strong military power and is influencing geopolitics with this power. But Abe wants to make Japan a political power, which is the impetus for his pursuit of the constitutional amendment.

During Barack Obama's administration, Abe relied on the U.S. Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy to contain China and seek regional dominance. After Donald Trump came to power, the United States advocates the America First policy and pursues trade protectionism. It makes Abe lose diplomatic support and forces him to partly adjust Japan's foreign policy.

Sino-Japanese ties have improved this year after China took some initiatives. Yet the upward momentum, mainly in trade and economy, is not stable because Abe refuses to change his foreign policy on politics and security.

Abe's government has continued strengthening military deployment around the Diaoyu Islands, creating a tense atmosphere. On the Taiwan question, it has echoed the U.S. move to have close ties with the island and has been frequently interacting with the Taiwan authorities. Japan has also sent warships and submarines to the South China Sea for patrols and training. All these actions run counter to improving ties with China. It remains to be seen how far Abe's chaotic foreign policy will go.




Shi Yongming is a senior researcher on world studies and an op-ed contributor to Beijing Review.


Source: Beijing Review, September 29, 2018.