Japanese election likely curtain-raiser for constitutional reform

Unshackling Japan from its pacifist constitution is PM Shinzo Abe’s lifelong obsession

Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe (centre) pledged to revise the constitution by the time he leaves office. Photograph: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images

Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe (centre) pledged to revise the constitution by the time he leaves office. Photograph: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images

 

It is one of the rituals of Japanese elections that politicians climb atop sound trucks outside train stations and try to make their case heard above the din of half-interested pedestrians. Shinzo Abe, the prime minister, took his campaign this week to Shibuya, Tokyo’s crowded youth Mecca, where he hawked the benefits of his faltering economic policies.

“We are still only part-way along,” Abe said, sweating in the muggy heat. “We must keep going.” Notably absent was any explanation of his lifelong political goal: unshackling Japan from its pacifist constitution.

Abe pledged in March to revise the constitution by the time he leaves office in 2018. His supporters consider the document a humiliating remnant of the US occupation after Japan’s defeat in the second World War.

The problem for them is the issue is a turnoff for voters. Opinion polls before the upper house vote on Sunday consistently show most Japanese are deeply attached to the peace clause, which has kept the country out of wars for 70 years.

A survey last week by NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster, found the people’s top concern was social security, followed by the economy. Just 11 per cent of respondents cited “constitutional issues”.

After more than 1,280 days in office, Abe is hardly on strong ground with the economy either. Consumption is sluggish, wages are stagnant and business confidence is flat. The government’s war on the deflation that has stunted growth in Japan for more than a decade has yet to be won, despite letting loose billions of dollars in easy money.

Abe’s coalition government is expected to beat the divided opposition handily, however. Some even predict the government and the motley coalition of political parties that support changing the constitution could win two-thirds of the seats in in the upper house, the magic number needed to put a constitutional amendment before the electorate.

The government has received an unexpected bounce from Brexit, which allows it to shift the blame for the weak economy abroad. The turmoil in Europe adds to Abe’s appeals for stability among core supporters of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has been in power for most of the postwar period.

The lessons of Brexit will not have been lost on Abe’s supporters, who believe their own quest, once considered a right- wing pipe dream, is within their grasp. But pushing the issue to the front of the election campaign almost certainly guarantees fewer votes, so Abe has mostly avoided it, unless asked.

Focusing on the economy while ignoring the elephant in the room is now a tried and tested formula. In the two previous general elections since Abe returned to power in late 2012, the government trumpeted his inflationary economic creed, known as Abenomics, only to pull unpopular policies out of the hat after victory.

Abe’s opponents say his post-election energies will quickly switch from the economy to his lifelong obsession. “I have an extremely strong sense of crisis about what’s coming,” said Katsuya Okada, leader of the Democratic Party, last week. Okada said a resounding victory for the LDP would “completely change” the country.

In a bid to block that scenario, the Democrats have cobbled together an agreement with three other opposition parties, including the Japanese Communist Party, to field joint candidates in every constituency up for grabs on Sunday. The parties share little else except the desire to shore up the case for the pacifist clause.

The impact of that strategy remains to be seen. Most pundits predict a low turnout, which usually works in the LDP’s favour. Some say the party may win a majority for the first time since 1989, meaning it could sideline its coalition partner Komeito, a Buddhist-backed pacifist party that has ridden sidesaddle uneasily with the LDP for years.