BY SATOSHI SUGIYAMA, STAFF WRITER
The Lower House election campaign officially kicked off Tuesday, with the ruling coalition and the opposition camp clashing over economic policies, the coronavirus pandemic response and the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito’s record over their nine-year reign.
Although voters’ primary concerns tend to be focused on domestic affairs, diplomacy and national security have emerged as key battle lines in this election. Party leaders on both the right and the left have laid out campaign pledges regarding Japan’s alliance with the United States and the nation’s defense capabilities with China and North Korea in mind.
“Now is the time that Japanese citizens finally have a say in how Japan should respond … amid changes in the international order,” said Mieko Nakabayashi, a Japanese politics professor at Waseda University and a former Lower House member for the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) between 2009 and 2012.
The emphasis on foreign and defense policies reflects both rising tensions with those two Asian nations and voters’ increased awareness of missile threats, alleged human rights abuses and territorial disputes in the South and East China seas, including over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands that Beijing claims and calls the Diaoyu. Additionally, the ruling parties have made them central issues to distinguish themselves from an opposition grouping that includes the Japanese Communist Party.
“After the DPJ government, stability was needed, so voters had consistently opted for stability under the (Shinzo) Abe and (Yoshihide) Suga governments,” Nakabayashi said. “But international affairs have changed within the past four or five years, such as those to do with China and North Korea. … It’s a valuable and unique time to put forward a question about the future of Japan.”
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Monday questioned Yukio Edano, leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), about the opposition group’s cooperation with the Japanese Communist Party in the general election even though the two parties have different stances on diplomacy and defense. Mentioning how the JCP views the Self-Defense Forces as unconstitutional, Kishida raised doubts over the possibility of smooth cooperation between the two parties in an emergency that requires the SDF’s deployment.
Edano responded that the CDP would respond “resolutely” and responsibly to an emergency. The JCP has said it will not join the Cabinet if the CDP takes power but will cooperate with it on certain policies in a “limited” capacity.
Noting the increasingly precarious security environment surrounding Japan, indirectly referring to China and North Korea, Kishida last week touted his nearly five-year term as foreign minister as evidence of his strong track record of defending the country, saying the experience it gave him will help him establish a relationship of trust with the nation’s neighbors.
Voters are increasingly interested in international and defense affairs because of the tense security situation in East Asia and concerns over whether the opposition could manage the sensitive policies related to them, one veteran LDP lawmaker said on condition of anonymity last week.
The Kishida-led LDP is calling for an increase in defense spending to potentially over 2% of gross domestic product. The ruling party insists on conducting a “fundamental review” of the national security environment and revising the National Security Strategy, National Defense Program Guidelines and Mid-Term Defense Program. To reinforce deterrence, the party is in favor of acquiring missiles capable of striking enemy bases.
Meanwhile, the CDP seeks to amend legislation to strengthen Japan’s coast guard system and territorial surveillance. With the “healthy” Japan-U.S. alliance as the centerpiece of the nation’s diplomacy, the party wants to promote multilateral cooperation with neighboring countries in the Indo-Pacific region, particularly India and Australia.
At the same time, the party is campaigning for a revision to the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement and halting construction for the relocation of a U.S. military base within Okinawa Prefecture to the district of Henoko.
“The CDP basically says that it respects the Japan-U.S. alliance, but it did not succeed in dealing with issues where it was opposed to the U.S., such as with the base in Okinawa,” when its forerunner the DPJ was in power, said Jun Iio, a professor of Japanese politics at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies. “The opposition is being questioned on how it will solve the issue this time.”
The DPJ made a pledge to relocate the U.S. military base outside of Okinawa, overturning an agreement between Japan and the U.S. that was made when the LDP was in power. The promise jolted the Japan-U.S. alliance, and the DPJ ultimately accepted moving the base to Henoko. In the face of rising criticism from people in Okinawa, then-Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama was forced to step down in 2010.
But Kishida’s leadership will also be in focus.
The prime minister often stresses trust and empathy as two basic principles in his administration, as Hatoyama used “fraternity” as his slogan. Whether his leadership is likely to yield results will be closely judged by voters.
“There are concerns that Mr. Kishida’s ability to execute has not yet been proven,” Nakabayashi said.
While defense issues have taken on greater visibility, the primary issues in the election — to be held Oct. 31 — concern the economy and coronavirus measures. An opinion poll released by public broadcaster NHK on Monday showed 34% of respondents identified economic and fiscal policies as the most important in the election, followed by 22% pointing to COVID-19 countermeasures.
While sticking to the basic principles of Abe’s economic policies, known as Abenomics, the LDP has pledged increased economic support for part-time workers, women and households with young children. Komeito, meanwhile, has committed to distributing ￥100,000 to children in their third year of high school and younger.
To combat infectious diseases, the LDP proposes amending legislation so that the government can have greater powers to suppress foot traffic and procure medical resources.
On the economy, the CDP advocates for effectively exempting individuals whose annual salary is about ¥10 million or less from income tax and temporarily lowering the sales tax to 5%, while at the same time increasing the income and corporate tax rates for high earners and large businesses. It also supports better conditions for health care professionals, including a ￥200,000 bonus, and expanding PCR testing.
Both the ruling and opposition parties are in agreement on increased government spending and they are competing on which one will use the money more effectively and sustainably, said Iio. But he added that all parties need to be clearer on how they will fund their policies.
Noting that there are no significant differences between them in their approaches to the coronavirus, the professor said the key point is their ability to properly execute policies.
The ruling parties are responsible for the fact that there was patchy implementation of coronavirus measures, Iio said.
“However, this is a problem of implementation, which is a weak area for the opposition parties. If the opposition wants to criticize the ruling parties’ ability to implement the measures, it needs to provide more concrete explanations to convince voters.”
As part of an initiative to consolidate candidates to shore up their chances of winning races in single-member districts, the CDP and smaller opposition parties excluding right-leaning Nippon Ishin no Kai have agreed to support unified candidates in more than 210 of those 289 constituencies, more than triple the number in the last Lower House election, which took place in October 2017. Including proportional representation seats, 465 are up for grabs in total.
Akira Amari, the LDP’s secretary-general, last week argued the election “will be a choice between an administration governed by our liberal democratic principles or an administration where communism will be introduced for the first time.” Such strong criticism may partially be a sign of apprehension among LDP executives that the opposition’s strategy of unified candidates will see them gain seats from the ruling party in single-member constituencies.
How successful the opposition’s united front is in claiming LDP seats will be one of this election’s main points of interest, Nakabayashi said.