Japan’s Strange Bedfellows Struggle to Gain Ground Against Abe

Abe Rivals Struggle to Gain Ground
  • Communist-Democrat tie-up may fail to stop super-majority
  • Abe needs two-thirds of seats to seek constitutional change

An uncomfortable alliance between Japan’s main opposition Democratic Party and the smaller Communist Party is struggling to gain traction against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition ahead of Sunday’s upper house election.

QuickTake Abenomics

The long-isolated Communists have joined forces with the mainstream DP in an unprecedented move as they seek to overturn Abe’s expansion of the role of the armed forces. They are also trying to prevent the prime minister from gaining the two-thirds majority in the chamber needed to begin the process of revising the nation’s pacifist constitution, but polls show they may fail to thwart him.

Party leaders at a coalition event in Tokyo.
Party leaders at a coalition event in Tokyo.
Photographer: Nicolas Datiche/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The election for the less powerful upper chamber won’t affect Abe’s position as premier, which he has held since returning to power in a lower house victory in 2012.

Half of the 242 upper house seats are in contention in this weekend’s election. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner Komeito were likely to win between 59 and 80 of the 121 seats up for grabs, according to a poll of more than 33,000 people published by the Nikkei newspaper Wednesday. With support from small conservative parties and the coalition’s share of the uncontested half of the house, Abe may be able to reach the two-thirds line, the Nikkei said.

"Unity is important," said Steven Reed, professor of political science at Chuo University in Tokyo. "The LDP and Komeito are completely on the same page. If you don’t look unified, you don’t look like you can govern."

Opposition Differences

By contrast, the Democrats and their allies have difficulty presenting a united front. Their differences surfaced again last week, when a Communist Party official resigned after referring to the defense budget as money "for killing people."

For a QuickTake on Japan’s armed forces, click here.

"I myself have a strong allergy to them," Koichiro Gemba, the Democrats’ election strategist, said of the Communists in an interview last month. "It’s not a good idea to cooperate too closely. We have a loose alliance."

Gemba cited the Communists’ past rejection of the emperor system, the Self-Defense Forces and the U.S. alliance as his biggest concerns. But he said the ruling coalition was in no position to criticize the tie-up. The LDP attacked Soka Gakkai, the Buddhist sect behind Komeito, as unfit to be involved in government, before forming a coalition with the party in 1999.

Banned from their formation in 1922 until the end of World War II, the Communists have proposed forming a coalition government with the DP in the future -- an idea rebuffed by the Democrats.

"Of course there are difficulties and differences in our positions and policies," said Communist Party deputy policy chief Akira Kasai in an interview this week. "We are not the same party. But the biggest thing is that we must bring an end to Mr Abe’s administration."

‘Zero Chance’

Abe has based his campaign around his economic policies -- dubbed Abenomics -- and has emphasized the need for stability amid global uncertainty. His opponents have sought to capitalize on public fears over the laws that Abe’s coalition passed to boost the military amid China’s increasing assertiveness in the region.

A protest against the security bills in Tokyo in August 2015.
A protest against the security bills in Tokyo in August 2015.
Photographer: Akio Kon/Bloomberg

The debate sparked a series of large demonstrations in Tokyo last year and fueled concern that Abe could go further by abandoning the pacifist Article 9 of the U.S.-imposed constitution -- a document unchanged since its enactment in 1947. Abe’s LDP drafted a new constitution in 2012 that would enshrine the position of the country’s "Self-Defense Forces" as an army.

LDP vice president Masahiko Komura, told a TV program this week there was "zero chance" of changing the pacifist article in the near future, even if the ruling coalition gains a two-thirds majority in Sunday’s election, Kyodo news reported.

His comments sparked a request for clarification from the Democratic Party. "Is this the official understanding of your party?" secretary-general Yukio Edano asked in an open letter to the LDP. "Prime Minister Abe has never said that he’s given up on revising Article 9."

One senior figure at Soka Gakkai, known for its generally pacifist stance, said he was not concerned about any immediate change.

"Abe is not making the constitution an issue in this election, and some people say that he is hiding his plans to change it," said Hirotsugu Terasaki, vice president in charge of international affairs at Soka Gakkai. "But I don’t think so. I think even he understands it’s not something that can be done straight away."

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