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Shinzo Abe’s victory ensures political stability

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Shinzo Abe’s victory ensures political stability

His reworking of Parliament and economy is a blessing for not just coalition Government and young Japan, but also for India, explains RAJARAM PANDA

There was an element of surprise when Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced the dissolution of the Lower House of the Diet more than a year ahead of its full tenure to end and called for snap polls on October 22. The results gave a resounding victory to the ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito with a two-thirds majority in the powerful chamber of the Diet. In the 465 seats House, the LDP and its junior partner Komeito secured 312 seats (283+29), enough to initiate constitutional revisions in the chamber, one of Abe’s main agenda. People braved the threat of the powerful typhoon and remained undeterred by the constant drizzle, which could not dampen the enthusiasm of the voters. However, voter turnout was estimated at 53.84 per cent, which marked the second-lowest level since World War II. There was some delay in vote counting due to public transportation disruption caused by the powerful typhoon Lan that brought heavy rain and strong winds.

It was for the first time that 18- and 19-year-olds were able to vote after a legal change took effect in 2016. The total number of seats in the Lower House was cut by 10 since the previous election — six in the single-seat constituencies and four in the proportional representation blocs — as part of the Diet’s efforts to rectify vote value disparity between the nation’s most and least densely populated electoral districts. Abe is to be formally re-elected as prime minister at a special Diet session to be convened on November 1, and then launch his fourth Cabinet same day. The LDP shall have also the support of three candidates who won in the general election as independents.

The path is now clear for Abe to seek a third term as LDP president in autumn 2018. If Abe wins a third consecutive term, he will secure the post through September 2021, paving the path to become a “super long-serving administration” and deliver results both in domestic and foreign affairs.  Soon after the results, Abe met with Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi and confirmed that the LDP and Komeito will maintain their coalition and continue the unfinished tasks. Abe is likely to reappoint all incumbent ministers to their posts in his fourth cabinet. In view of the Morimoto Gakuen, including suspected cronyism involving the Kake Educational Institution scandals which dented Abe’s image to some extent, both coalition partners resolved to humbly manage Diet affairs.Abe also plans to retain party top executives, including Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai and Policy Research Council Fumio Kishida.

The resounding victory to the coalition partners demonstrated that the voters endorsed the coalition’s governing abilities, though analysts often attribute to the opposition’s inability to forge unity and place the agenda before the people in clear and convincing terms. Political situation can suddenly turn volatile if serious mistakes are made leading to public support plummeting suddenly and therefore Abe government needs to govern carefully and humbly and meet public expectations by advancing diverse policy challenges. 

The newly established conservative opposition Kibo no To (Party of Hope) floated by Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike performed miserably and garnered less seats (50) than the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (54) by increasing its strength from 15, thereby dashing its hope to emerge as the largest party in the opposition blocs. While the Japanese Communist Party withdrew many of its candidates as part of its election cooperation with the CDP and struggled, the Social Democratic Party which cooperated with the CDP and JCP managed to secure only one seat in a single-seat constituency. The Party for Japanese Kokoro drew a blank. Though popular support rating of his past Cabinet is yet to recover, the disunity in the opposition preventing it to form a caucus in the Diet helped Abe.

With this landslide victory, Abe already began his work on his fourth Cabinet. Several issues confronting Japan were raised during election campaign. Political parties articulated their stances on economic and security issues, restarting stalled nuclear reactors, social security, education, North Korean threat, demographic issues such as declining birth rate and increase in the number of aging population, constitutional revision and broadly the nation’s foreign policy. This article shall focus only on a few of these.

During the election campaign, Abe pledged to tackle two national crises confronting Japan — threat coming from North Korea’s missile launches, two of which flew over the northern island of Hokkaido in August, and an aging and shrinking population, impacting on the government’s social security measures and education of children. Promising to work towards ensuring safety, peace and prosperity from any contingency, including threats from North Korea and China, Abe promised to pursue policies that ensure justice to the families of those whose members were kidnapped years ago and still held by North Korea and vowed to bring them back by pursuing decisive and strong diplomacy. The biggest takeaway from the election outcome is that Abe worked hard and succeeded in securing political stability, essential for policy making on crucial economic, security and foreign policy issues. With this mandate, Abe should be now confident to bring in a comprehensive package soon and address the issue of demographic challenge, investment in education, productivity improvements and pension system reforms, besides constitutional revision.

By resuscitating the economy through “Abenomics” economic policy package, Abe expects to strengthen his growth strategy centred on the hyper-easy monetary policy and thereby revitalise the economy. The budget for fiscal 2018 is likely to prioritise policies for a “productivity revolution” and “revolution in human resources development”, the main campaign pledges. The consumption tax rate hike from the current 8 to 10 per cent is set for October 2019 and the Abe Government intends to change the distribution of additional revenue generated from this tax hike to make preschool education free. The quantum of additional revenue accruing from tax hike and to be appropriated for such measures needs careful planning. The earlier plan to use the revenue from increased tax revenue solely for reduction in deficit-covering bonds is no longer a priority for the Abe government. Besides designing a system to provide assistance to households truly in need, Abe government needs to adopt a new plan for achieving fiscal health, without which a primary fiscal balance surplus by fiscal 2020 is unlikely to be achieved. 

The dissolution of the Lower House that necessitated snap polls kept enactment of legislation related to work style reforms on hold. Therefore, the ordinary Diet session likely to be convened in early January 2018 is expected to take up this issue on priority. Stress induced from overwork in companies led many to kill themselves. The suicide by a young girl working in Dentsu recently made national headlines. In order to address this disturbing social issue, Abe’s planned legislation aims to put a cap on overtime, with violators subject to penalties, and achieving an “equal pay for equal work” system. The legislation also plans to cover the introduction of a “post-hourly wage” system in which certain high-income professionals are exempt from work-hour regulations.

Factionalism in Japanese politics even within ruling parties, a phenomena unique in Japanese political system, is also going to work to Abe’s advantage. Two large factions, each led by Hiroyuko Hosoda and Taro Aso have always backed Abe, ensuring that Abe’s dominance remains unshakable. Though former LDP Secretary General and former Defence Minister Shigeru Ishiba, an aspirant to succeed Abe, opposes Abe’s revision plan for Article 9, with only 20 lawmakers in his faction, he poses no real challenge to Abe. Even members of Kishida faction are split whether to support a peaceful transfer in the party race or challenge Abe. Abe, therefore, is likely to remain unchallenged within the party from likely aspirants.

In the post-war Japan, Abe is the third longest-serving Prime Minister with 2,128 days in office. This number combines his first term in 2006-07 with the present. If he wins the party leadership race in autumn 2018, survives the Upper House election and completes the new term as prime minister, Abe would have completed 3,500 days in office as prime minister, which will overtake Eisaku Sato’s tenure, so far the longest with 2,798 days in office under the current Constitution and Taro Katsura’s term under the Meiji Constitution with a record of 2,886 days in office, including pre-war and wartime leaders.

What does Abe’s victory mean for India? Undoubtedly, it is great news. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already congratulated Abe on his victory. With Modi and Abe at the helm in India and Japan, India-Japan relations are destined to scale more frontiers in economic and security domains. An analysis of this and of the proposal for constitutional amendment, coping with North Korean challenge, regional security issues among others, are issues for other articles. Briefly put, Abe’s immediate attention in the foreign policy domain would be to address the most pressing diplomatic issue of strengthening the Japan-US alliance and dealing with North Korea when he receives President Trump visiting Japan from November 5 to 7.

The writer is currently Indian Council for Cultural Relations India Chair Visiting Professor at Reitaku University, Japan.

The views expressed are his own and do not represent either of the ICCR or the Government of India. rajaram.panda@gmail.com 

 
 
 
 
 

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