Author: Aurelia George Mulgan, UNSW Canberra
As Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leader, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has delivered five electoral victories for his party in five years. This achievement has consolidated his power and position as both LDP President and Prime Minister. Japan no longer suffers from a revolving-door prime ministership, which characterised some earlier LDP as well as Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) administrations.
Along with political stability and longevity, the Abe administration has also delivered the ‘politics of decision’ under the leadership of a powerful prime ministerial executive that comprises the prime minister and his executive office (Kantei), together with a beefed-up policy and administrative support apparatus. Under Abe, this executive has consolidated its power over the LDP and the bureaucracy — the two main sources of countervailing policymaking power to the prime minister and the Kantei.
Abe managed to accumulate this power despite enduring two very serious school scandals in 2017 involving allegations that individuals cozy with Abe and his wife received favourable treatment from his government in establishing educational facilities. The decision to hold a snap lower house election in October, together with the use of other tactics (such as significantly slashing the opposition’s share of question time in the Diet) have enabled the Prime Minister to avoid real accountability on these issues and to restabilise his administration despite widespread popular mistrust of how the Abe administration has handled them.
The Abe prime ministership has also witnessed a distinct muzzling of the media. Media outlets have been subjected to ‘an intensification of various media-restricting initiatives’ and some now feature pro-Abe reportage.
Hence on balance, it would seem that Japanese politics has become weaker in terms of democratic checks and balances under the Abe administration.
At the same time, the Prime Minister himself suffers from issues of personal unpopularity. In a November poll, a majority of respondents reported that they did not want Abe to win another three-year term as LDP president and prime minister when he comes up for re-election in September 2018. The most commonly given reason for this response was: ‘because I don’t think highly of Abe’. Even some leading lights in his own party are questioning the Abe executive’s dominance over the LDP.
In the Diet itself, the ruling coalition holds a commanding two-thirds majority position over a splintered opposition.
The October election precipitated a split of the main opposition Democratic Party (DP) into the centre-right Party of Hope and the centre-left Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ). The Party of Hope (which was launched by Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike) initially attracted great public interest and support, but this plummeted after only a modest performance in the October lower house election and Koike’s resignation as party leader. The CDPJ won more seats than any other opposition party in the election, but with both new parties enjoying only pockets of support, neither graduated into broad national parties.
Unlike the Party of Hope and the DP, the CDPJ has a clear and consistent message that contrasts strongly with the LDP’s. Having taken a stand against revising Article 9 of the constitution and against the 2015 security legislation allowing the Self-Defence Forces (SDF) to participate in collective self-defence, the CDPJ is the core of a real opposition, not an LDP-lookalike occupying essentially the same ideological space.
The CDPJ also contrasts itself with the Abe administration’s style of governing by touting a belief in ‘bottom-up’ democracy rather than the Prime Minister’s strong, top-down style. In this context, the CDPJ is likely to spearhead political opposition to constitutional reform. This opposition would not only apply to proposals to add an explicit provision on the existence of the SDF to the Peace Clause but also to proposals that would effectively wind back citizens’ civil rights in favour of their duties and obligations to the state.
The opposition as a whole still comprises a disparate group of parties ranging across the ideological spectrum, but these differences may not necessarily prevent cooperation on the floor of the Diet. The CDPJ is actively soliciting support from the Japanese Communist Party, the Party of Hope and others in co-sponsoring bills, and the Party of Hope is open to cooperation depending on the issue.
On the other hand, forming an effective united front that can challenge the LDP on policies and in general elections may be a bridge too far. The new parties are still a ‘work in progress’ and every opposition party has the problem of retaining its Diet members and remaining true to its principles and supporters. Further, given the widespread public perception that the 2009–12 DPJ administration was an abject failure, elections will primarily remain an issue of how voters feel about the LDP, the Prime Minister and the coalition government.
The major challenge ahead will be keeping the government accountable when it has two-thirds majorities in both houses. The main checks will potentially come from inside the government itself. Ongoing tension between the prime ministerial executive and the LDP over rights to make policy may constrain prime ministerial initiatives, as will the LDP’s coalition partner, the Komeito. Initiating and enacting constitutional revision motions in the Diet will require careful management of differences both within and among the ruling and opposition parties.
Aurelia George Mulgan is a Professor in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales, Canberra.
This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2017 in review and the year ahead.