Abe’s Election Win Changes Nothing

Shinzo Abe

A fifth election victory for Shinzo Abe doesn’t change the obstacles which stand in the way of constitutional revision or other major reforms.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has won his fifth national election, returning the Liberal Democratic Party to the Diet with a solid majority. While the LDP’s coalition partner Komeito lost a small number of seats, the two parties combined have a two-thirds supermajority. You could certainly call it a landslide victory, though “landslide” suggests some movement; the LDP has precisely the same seat total now that it had before the election. Losses on the Komeito side mean the coalition is actually down five seats, though the House of Representatives itself is also smaller by 10 seats this time.

After weeks of campaigning, vast amounts of election expenditure and acres of media coverage, precious little has actually changed. Abe’s snap election has simply confirmed that a plurality of Japanese voters still think the LDP is the most pragmatic electoral choice; the party earned 48% of SMD votes and around 33% of PR votes, which translated to 61% of seats in the Diet. In the process, one potential external threat – Yuriko Koike and her hastily assembled Hope Party – has been seen off, at least for the time being. The success of the Constitutional Democratic Party, however, means that neither of Abe’s preferred outcomes – the total crumbling of the opposition, or a broadly conservative party that shares Abe’s policy preferences becoming the top opposition force – has come to pass. Moreover, while his position within his own party will be shored up by confirmation that voters’ dislike of him as Prime Minister is not proving harmful to the LDP as a whole, that dislike itself remains; over half of voters (51%) in Kyodo’s exit poll said that they “don’t trust” Abe.

A fifth election victory under his belt and a supermajority at his back, then, won’t really make it any easier for Abe to do the things he wants to do – most notably amending the constitution, his stated goal for several years. Much coverage of the election has noted that the LDP/Komeito coalition has enough votes to pass a motion on constitutional revision; this is absolutely true, but glosses over the point that they’ve had enough votes to do that since 2014, and the constitution remains unmolested. Others have noted that “pro-revision” parties, including Hope and Nippon Ishin no Kai, now make up a huge majority in the Diet; this has also been true for several years but still, no revision.

“Pro-revision” is a broad category; many lawmakers would prefer reforms that don’t target Article 9

There are two reasons for this. The first is that being “pro-revision” is a very broad categorisation; there are 103 Articles in the Constitution of Japan, and while most debate has focused on Article 9 (the pacifist clause), many lawmakers would rather focus reform efforts elsewhere. Some lawmakers classed as “pro-revision” are actually proposing things such as enshrining a right to free higher education in the Constitution; there’s even a small but growing movement pushing for improving the civil rights of LGBT people by altering the wording of Articles 14 or 24. Even those lawmakers who agree that Article 9 should be the focus of revision differ greatly on how that should be done. The LDP consensus has eventually landed on the minimum possible option of retaining its existing wording while adding a line explicitly recognising the existence of the Self-Defence Forces. Some right-wing lawmakers may actually oppose such a reform on the basis that it doesn’t go far enough for their liking.

In short, getting a constitutional revision bill through the Diet remains a fraught process, and this election hasn’t changed that; if anything, by returning an ideologically coherent and vehemently anti-revision party as the largest opposition force, it may have made things a touch more difficult. If Abe’s overriding desire is simply for some revision – any revision – then he could get through this step by proposing an uncontroversial and widely supported revision in order to secure Komeito’s votes. He could do that any time he wanted; he could have done that at any point since 2014. The reason he hasn’t done so is partially because it took the LDP quite some time to simmer its constitutional revision ideas down from the sweeping traditionalist ambitions of its much-criticised draft revised constitution to the more realistic “let’s add a single line to Article 9, and perhaps something expanding free education”. More importantly, it’s because the next step of constitutional revision after passing such a bill is a national referendum – and that’s highly likely to fail, even for the most inoffensive and milquetoast revision imaginable.

Referenda are often treated by the public as “second-order” elections – low-stakes opportunities to kick disliked politicians in the shins. This is also true of local elections, and if the sharp contrast between the results of the Tokyo Assembly Election in July and the national general election in October show anything, it’s just how keen the Japanese electorate is to kick Abe in the shins given a second-order election in which they can do so with minimal consequence. Any referendum on constitutional revision would not only galvanise the country’s opposition like no other vote could, it would also quickly come to be seen as a vote on Abe’s personal popularity. There’s no evidence in the results of recent elections – last weekend’s included – to suggest that that’s a vote he would win.

Abe is the most powerful Prime Minister in decades; his failure to implement major reform is of his own making

What of Abe’s other policies? Here, too, his fifth election victory has brought him nothing he didn’t already have after the third and fourth. With a moderately growing economy, a flexible and accommodating head of the Bank of Japan, ineffective opposition and a firm grasp on the reins of power in his own party, Abe is arguably the most powerful Prime Minister of recent decades. His failures to implement serious economic reform, to overhaul corporate governance or to challenge the country’s work culture are all his own; he has more tools at his disposal than any other leader in a generation, and has done little with them. The Kake and Moritomo Gakuen scandals which were chipping away at his authority, too, have not evaporated just because an election was held; senior figures both within the LDP and without are adamant that Abe still has questions to answer on those fronts.

When Abe called the election September, the speed at which Yuriko Koike was able to assemble her new party led some – myself included – to wonder if this would be his Theresa May moment, throwing away his authority by losing seats in an unnecessary and unwanted election. Ultimately, the unforced errors of Koike and her deputies meant that the LDP lost no seats and Abe emerged a victor once again; but what exactly this has accomplished for the government is a mystery. The government’s mandate and the barriers to Abe’s longed-for constitutional revision remain precisely what they were before. Did Japanese taxpayers really just cough up all that campaign cash just so Shinzo Abe can put another notch in his electoral bedpost?


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