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Editorial: Japan faces long-term challenges despite ruling parties’ election success

  • July 22, 2019
  • , The Mainichi
  • English Press

The third House of Councillors election since the launch of the second administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has ended.


And while Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has fewer seats in the upper house than it did before the election, the ruling LDP and its junior coalition partner Komeito managed to maintain the majority in the chamber. One could say that voters indicated a certain measure of support for the long-term administration, which has been in power for 6 1/2 years.


There are misgivings, however, about whether the upper house election was one that contributed to solving the long-term challenges that Japan faces of depopulation, the dwindling birthrate, and the growing proportion of the elderly.


In Japan’s bicameral legislature, the House of Councillors is referred to as “the chamber of careful deliberation.” This is because unlike the House of Representatives, which can be dismissed, and a snap general election called at any time during the lower house legislators’ four-year terms, upper house lawmakers are guaranteed six-year terms. What is sought from upper house members are distance from interparty conflict, and big-picture deliberation on policies.


However, debate on topics that have long symbolized the country’s woes, such as social security reform, including pensions, and voter turnout, were dull. This is in spite of growing concern over future pension payouts after a report by a Financial Services Agency working group stated that a couple would need 20 million yen in addition to public pensions in order to support themselves after retirement.


The ruling coalition was preoccupied with underscoring the sustainability of the country’s pension system. If the economy grew through “Abenomics,” employment will rise, and the financial basis for pensions will strengthen, went Prime Minister Abe’s logic.


Monetary easing and public spending are mere shots in the arm on a myopic view of the economy. What we need is debate that will ease the fears of future generations who will be forced to pay for such shortsighted measures. Refusing to look at that fact in the eye will prevent Japan from making progress.


Most of the opposition bloc failed to indicate any sources of funds that would make their calls to stop the anticipated consumption tax hike from the current 8% to 10% more responsible. The reason that the ruling bloc’s discussion on social security reform did not even seem to be in the same ballpark as that of the opposition bloc’s is because both were evasive.


The latest election was the sixth straight victory in national elections for Prime Minister Abe since he returned to being the president of the LDP in December 2012. There was a chance that the administration would become a lame duck had the LDP lost a large number of seats in the latest election, and now that Abe has gotten over that possibly dangerous hump, he’s entering the final stage of his long-term administration, in which he will try to go through with long-cherished dreams.


One of those is constitutional amendment. During the upper house election campaign period, Abe repeatedly called on voters to think about whether they want to choose “a party that debates the Constitution, or doesn’t debate the Constitution.” Therefore, he may point to the fact that the ruling coalition won the majority of seats in the recent election as “evidence” that debate on amending the Constitution gained confidence from voters.


Pro-amendment forces, comprising the ruling coalition and Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party, JIP), did not maintain two-thirds of the seats in the House of Councillors, which is the proportion of seats necessary in both the upper and lower house, respectively, to propose constitutional amendments in the Diet. But the prime minister has said that he is hopeful about winning over cooperation from members from the opposition Democratic Party for the People (DPFP) who have expressed enthusiasm for constitutional revision.


However, how the contents of the Constitution would be changed has not been discussed between the parties. Information on explicitly writing in the existence of the Self-Defense Forces into the Constitution — Abe’s pet idea — is extremely lacking, and the LDP’s junior coalition partner, Komeito, remains wary. The DPFP has also taken a stand against such a change to the Constitution.


The Constitution is the fundamental law of a nation. The reason that making a proposal for constitutional revision must have the support of at least two-thirds of Diet members in the upper and lower houses, respectively, is because it requires careful deliberation that will win the understanding of the majority of the public. The result of an election must not be used as a tool to run the Commission on the Constitution in a high-handed manner.


One focal point of the election was the 32 constituencies across the country in which only one seat was contested. Like they did in the 2016 upper house election, opposition parties, with the exception of the JIP, together backed single candidates for all 32 constituencies, winning 10 of them. The number was just short of the one-person constituencies the opposition bloc won in 2016. This reflected the deeply rooted dissatisfaction toward the Abe administration’s agricultural and other policies, primarily in the northeastern Tohoku region.


In the Tohoku region prefecture of Akita, it is believed that residents’ opposition to the planned deployment of the controversial land-based Aegis Ashore missile defense system partially led to the loss of the Akita Prefecture constituency’s incumbent LDP lawmaker to a candidate jointly fielded by key opposition parties. The incumbent LDP legislator in Niigata Prefecture also lost to a newcomer after being criticized for making remarks to the effect that he had intentionally pushed for progress on a public works project because it involved the home constituencies of Prime Minister Abe and Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso. These examples point to how much voter support for ruling parties is passive, rather than proactive or enthusiastic.


There is no denying that tensions between the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) and the DPFP took energy away from their election campaigns themselves. The CDP increased the number of seats it has in the upper house, but the number of seats that both parties — both of which originated from the same party, the now defunct Democratic Party — won in total was lower than the 32 that the Democratic Party won in the previous upper house race in 2016.


The lower voter turnout that has continued in House of Councillors elections under the Abe administration comes against a backdrop of a lack of an opposition that is capable of threatening the massive ruling coalition. Perhaps it is the lack of political vitality that has pushed voter turnout to dip below 50%.


Another reason for the low voter turnout is likely the complicated nature of the upper house election system. Depending on the constituency, the number of seats up for grabs can range from one to six. Plus, for the proportional representation bloc, voters can either write the name of a political party of the name of a candidate.


Furthermore, starting with the latest election, there is now a “special quota,” or seats given top priority on a party or group’s list of proportional representation bloc candidates, as a measure whose primary purpose is to help out LDP candidates who were pushed out due to the merging of constituencies. Consideration should have been made to make it easier for voters to exercise their right to vote, but instead, this change in the system prioritized the needs and wants of a political party over those of voters.


A democracy stands on the full participation of all of its members. This crisis, in which about half of voters abstain from voting, should be taken seriously by both the ruling and opposition parties.

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