Abe in a Bind After Election Win Piles on Constitution Pressure

  • Victory ‘perfect’ chance for revision: conservative group head
  • Challenge comes as Abe seeks to reboot Japan’s economic policy

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has some tough decisions to make after Sunday’s election for the upper house gave proponents of his long-held ambition to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution the two-thirds majority needed for such a change.

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Once one of the most outspoken advocates of revising the U.S.-imposed constitution, Abe has benefited from conservative support, yet putting that idea into practice promises to be a tricky and drawn-out process that may divide his coalition and distract the administration from its latest bid to revive the economy. It also could complicate already difficult ties with China, Japan’s biggest trading partner.

“He’s probably in a bind,” said Tomoaki Iwai, professor of politics at Nihon University in Tokyo. “He has a two-thirds majority, but that doesn’t automatically mean you get to change the constitution. No decision has been made on which part to change. There will be a great deal of pressure from the right wing, but the economy is a more urgent problem at the moment.”

Without decisive government action, Abe’s failure to fulfill a pledge to revive the weak economy may eventually undermine the steady approval rates he has enjoyed since taking office in 2012. The government cut its forecasts for growth and inflation this week and is said to be considering a stimulus package of 10 trillion yen ($96 billion) as it seeks to bolster domestic demand.

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“If Abenomics doesn’t succeed, eventually he will lose support,” former LDP Secretary-General Taku Yamasaki said in an interview Wednesday. “Escaping the deflationary economy is an extremely difficult problem. We’re not in a recession, but we can’t say the economy is healthy.”

When asked shortly after the polls closed on Sunday about the constitution, Abe said it had not been a theme of the campaign and that the result had therefore not provided a mandate for change. In his first formal speech after the election, he stuck to his economic agenda.

Right-Wing Pressure

Japan Conference, a conservative organization with close links to Abe and his cabinet, issued a statement welcoming the election result as a sign that voters accept the idea of constitutional change. The group, whose members include priests from some of Japan’s wealthiest Shinto shrines, called for accelerated debate in parliament and urged the main opposition Democratic Party to participate.

“Since this is the first time there’s been a two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament since the war, it is a perfect opportunity,” Tadae Takubo, a former journalist and now chairman of the conference, known in Japanese as Nippon Kaigi, told reporters Wednesday. “If I were Mr. Abe, I would do everything in my power to change the constitution during my tenure.”

A parliamentary panel on the constitution is expected to accelerate debate on the issue this autumn.

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A poll published by the Yomiuri newspaper on July 13 found 48 percent of respondents said they were pleased that parties favoring constitutional change had gained a two-thirds majority in both houses, while 41 percent said they were not. A separate survey by Kyodo news found 49 percent of respondents were opposed to changing the constitution under Abe’s administration, while 36 percent said they were in favor. Abe’s term as LDP leader ends in September 2018.

The final decision on amending the constitution must be decided in a referendum by the voters -- many of whom remain deeply attached to the pacifist Article 9. Thousands of people protested outside Abe’s official residence last summer when the government was pushing through bills to expand the role of Japan’s military.

China Concerns

Regional affairs could play into the debate. While defense analysts discuss the potential threat posed by Japan’s territorial dispute with an increasingly assertive China, the topic was not touched upon during the campaign for the upper house election -- a situation Takubo described as “bizarre.”

“Between Chinese expansionism and a more inward-looking U.S., what should Japan do?” Takubo said. “I think we should make the self-defense forces like the military of a normal country and inscribe this in the constitution. That’s why I’m favor of changing the constitution.”

Takubo acknowledged that opinion on the issue remains divided even within the LDP, which has constitutional reform as one of its founding principles. Its Buddhist-backed coalition partner, Komeito, is even more cautious, while the main opposition DP has vowed to try to block any constitutional change under Abe.

Passing the economic stimulus package will take up parliamentary time this autumn, as would any revision of the Imperial Household Law after reports that Emperor Akihito will announce his abdication within the next few years.

The raft of obstacles has made Abe among the most cautious of politicians on constitutional change, according to Nihon University’s Iwai.

“He’s cautious because of the referendum,” Iwai said. “If he failed, there would be no point in the Abe cabinet carrying on. He would be pressured into retiring from politics. When it comes to constitutional reform, using it as a slogan is one thing, but actually doing it is something completely different.”

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