Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is poised to ram unpopular defense bills through parliament’s lower house as soon as next week, ending a prolonged debate that has hardened public opposition to the legislation.
A swift vote would risk a further fall in support from a public skeptical of extending the remit of the military, and could expose cracks in his ruling Liberal Democratic Party. A delay could complicate defense ties with the U.S. and keep the law alive to next year when he faces elections for the upper chamber.
“When the time comes, it’s our responsibility to make a decision, rather than continuing with aimless debate,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters Wednesday when asked whether conditions were in place for a vote. On Thursday, Abe said he had no intention to call a snap election if there was a stalemate over the bills.
Abe has repeatedly vowed to pass the laws allowing Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to defend other countries amid concerns over a territorial dispute with an increasingly assertive China. Opposition parties submitted rival legislation Wednesday in a new bid to delay the bills, which must pass the lower house by late July to ensure final approval before the parliament session ends on Sept. 27.
“Abe seems to be willing to force a vote ignoring all the opposition parties,” said Steven Reed, professor of political science at Chuo University in Tokyo. “His support rate will go down, and when your support rate goes down your ability to keep everybody in line in the LDP goes down.”
The legislation would etch into law Abe’s reinterpretation last year of the nation’s pacifist constitution. It is guaranteed to pass the lower house, where Abe’s ruling coalition has a two-thirds majority. The upper house can delay action on bills for up to 60 days, after which they can be overridden by the lower chamber in a second vote.
Public approval of Abe fell in 2013 when the passage of a law toughening penalties for leaking state secrets sparked screaming in a parliamentary committee and demonstrations outside. Gaining the support of at least one opposition party would enable the ruling coalition to appear less heavy-handed.
“We don’t want to support other countries’ militaries or ’coalitions of the willing’ just because the U.S. tells us to,” Sakihito Ozawa, an opposition Japan Innovation Party lawmaker, said in an interview Tuesday.
The JIP submitted two rival bills Wednesday and a third jointly with the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan. While the alternative legislation is unlikely to be approved, the ensuing debate could further slow Abe’s legislation.
Weeks of discussion in parliament have eroded support for Abe’s cabinet. A series of media polls has shown a consistent 80 percent of the public say there hasn’t been enough explanation of the changes.
Opposition to Abe’s cabinet outweighed support for the first time since he took office in 2012 in a poll published by the Mainichi newspaper on July. 6. Forty-two percent of respondents said they supported Abe, with 43 percent saying they didn’t. A separate Yomiuri newspaper poll showed 52 percent didn’t think the bills would improve deterrence, while 35 percent said they would.
Senior LDP lawmaker Seiichiro Murakami is also against the legislation.
“The more we debate this, the more problems and contradictions emerge,” Murakami told reporters in Tokyo last week. “Collective defense means that when an ally is under attack, but you yourself are not, you can wage war. There is no way to make this possible except to change the constitution.”
Ninety percent of constitutional academics surveyed in a Tokyo Shimbun newspaper poll published Thursday said the security bills were “unconstitutional.”
But as things stand, the prevailing sentiment among party leadership is to put an end to discussions.
“I think we have built up quite a bit of debate time,” LDP Secretary-General Sadakazu Tanigaki told reporters Tuesday. “It’s about time we started looking for the exit.”