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Japan held elections to the House on 10 July, two days after the former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo was assassinated in Nara while campaigning for the candidates of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The resounding victory that the LDP and its coalition partner Komeito that ensured a majority was a demonstration of the administration of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida having won voters’ confidence. This despite Abe as the leader of the largest faction in the LDP and involved in guiding the Kishida administration leaving the scene was indeed remarkable. The jubilant mood which normally one sees after an election victory was missing this time. It was noticeably sombre as the party was still reeling from the shocking assassination of Abe, the mentor. With the LDP sweeping the polls, Kishida now needs to demonstrate his own identity to be Abe’s able successor and to lead the country on the path carved out by the slain leader.
Abe’s assassination turned the focus of all political parties on the protection of democracy. Besides the sympathy factor, the voter turnout at a little over 52 per cent, surpassing the 48.8 per cent in the previous Upper House election in 2019, and the second lowest figure on record, also showed that more people were willing to participate in the election process to defend democracy. Russia’s military operation in Ukraine also affected the electorate as they saw greater relevance of issues such as countering rising commodity prices, diplomacy and security. All these emerged as major issues. People started to worry about the increasing uncertainty in the international situation that might impact Japan’s future. This aspect too influenced voters’ behaviour. The key issues before Kishida would be to evaluate if there is any need to tweak “Abenomics” ~ the economic policy of Abe ~ as it yielded mixed results.
The focus would be to balance increase in defence spending with financial resources and setting a timetable for a revision of the Constitution. This was Abe’s long-term goal, which could not be realised because his ruling party did not have a two-thirds majority in the Upper House necessary to initiate the amendment process. This hurdle being now breached, Kishida shall be in a better position to start the process. Without Abe, the pillar behind the move, Kishida needs to navigate his policies and strategy, treading in Abe’s footsteps. Being aware of Abe and Yoshihide Suga being sometimes criticised for their perceived heavyhandedness, Kishida chose to navigate through the turbulent politics of the country by choosing to maintain a low profile during his first nine months in office. Now he must change that narrative and continue to maintain the high levels of approval rating that he enjoyed during the first nine months in office.
With his position being safe, Kishida can stay in office for the next three years as Prime Minister unless he decides to dissolve the Lower House and call for fresh elections. That he should not do and should instead focus on realising the objectives carved out by Abe. The LDP’s sweeping victory also meant exceeding the magical number of 63 seats, enabling the party to initiate the amendment process of the Constitution. The main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ) struggled to even retain some sitting members. Other minor opposition parties, such as the Sanseito (political participation party) and Reiwa Shinsengumi made marginal gains. Even in victory, the customary smile and jubilation in most of the winning candidates were missing this time. Many wore black arm badges as a mark of mourning. Amid this sombre situation, Toshimitsu Motegi, the LDP secretary-general, on behalf of the party pledged that the party would carry on the legacy left by Abe. That includes constitutional revision, a goal Abe desperately tried to achieve during his nearly nine years in office.
The situation now looks promising because the ruling coalition has the support of the opposition parties Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party) and the CDPJ, both of which favour amending the Pacifist Constitution. By getting a two-thirds majority, the hurdle imposed by Article 96 has been overcome. With political stability secured, the Kishida administration shall now prioritise national security issues, constitutional revision, and economic measures. This shall be the best way to honour Abe. Among other reasons for the ruling coalition to increase their Upper House seats are that opposition parties failed to be a vehicle for criticism of the administration, and the candidates fielded were not combined. In the 2016 and 2019 Upper House elections, the opposition parties united their candidates in single-seat constituencies, and thereby increased their strength. The largest opposition party, the CDPJ, did not take the lead in organising such cooperation. All these proved to be an advantage for the LDP-Komeito ruling coalition. The most significant aspect in the election was the stance of political parties on the Constitution.
Four major parties ~ LDP, Komeito, Nippon Ishin, and the Democratic Party for the People (DPFP) ~ were in favour of the amendment. This enabled the ruling coalition to secure the two-thirds of seats they needed to initiate revision proposals. The hurdle is not that simple to overcome. The four parties still have differences over the process of amendment. For example, while the LDP wants to explicitly mention the Self-Defense Forces in the war-renouncing Constitution, its coalition partner Komeito is cautious about this. With numbers guaranteed in the Upper House, Kishida needs to focus on compiling a constitutional amendment plan to be tabled in the House for discussion rather than use brute force of numbers to get the proposal through. Before Abe’s assassination, Kishida floated his “new capitalism” policy.
This was supposed to emphasize redistribution of money to correct disparity. But the focus shifted to investment and growth, making it almost indistinguishable from Abenomics, the economic policy mix promoted by Abe. The other arrow of Abenomics was monetary easing but the depreciation of the yen could place another challenge before Kishida. It is to be seen if he switches away from Abe’s line and seeks a new path. Also, with the deteriorating security environment in East Asia that has become more severe, it is to be seen how Kishida addresses the issue of developing the country’s defence capabilities.