Good fortune continues to be with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. In the 48th election for the House of Representatives, the Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner Komeito once again scored major victories. No other LDP prime minister has presided over three victorious elections for the House of Representatives and two for the House of Councilors.
The dissolution of Parliament was a matter of necessity. In surveys done before the election, it appeared that if the Democratic Party and the Japan Communist Party cooperated, the LDP would lose 50 seats. In that case, the chance for revising the Constitution would have evaporated. The caution light was on for Abe; his political future was in question.
But the pressing crisis with North Korea did not permit postponing the dissolution of the Diet and the calling of an election. If the United States military forces attacked North Korea, the Japanese government would be faced with issues such as providing rear area support to the US and a possible refugee crisis. There was no room for allowing a “political vacuum” by waiting until December when the House of Representatives term came to an end before calling an election.
The Prime Minister privately thought that the LDP might lose 40 seats and drop to 250, putting it just at the edge of the number needed to govern.
Further, when the Prime Minister made his dissolution statement on September 25th, Yuriko Koike, the governor of Tokyo, launched her “Party of Hope.” On September 28th the Democratic Party announced it was merging with her Party of Hope.
The Prime Minister must have felt a cold shudder.
The LDP could expect a stable support base of around 26 million votes spread over all electoral districts. As long as the opposition was divided, there would be no threat to this number. But if the opposition was united, there would be no hope for victory. There was no doubt that the Prime Minister was considering the nightmare scenario in which his government would be replaced in the event that all “anti-Abe” forces coalesced around the Party of Hope.
However, the goddess of fate smiled on the Prime Minister. Because Koike put forward a “policy of exclusion” that rejected those who did not accept her policy dictates, the Democratic Party split into three groups: those joining the Party of Hope, those joining the newly formed Constitutional Democratic Party, and those running as independents. An unexpected situation came about in which the LDP was without real opposition. Moreover, Koike did not stand for election herself and the Party of Hope rapidly lost force.
In retrospect, it has to be said that the LDP victory was given to it by the opposition, but nonetheless it is significant that the government gained overwhelming power.
Now, even if an emergency situation arises with North Korea, the Prime Minister can quickly and decisively put forward policies in response. In the case of the 1994 nuclear crisis with North Korea, Japan lost international credibility due to the turmoil associated with political reorganization. This time Japan can make a leading response based on the strong US-Japan relationship. It ought also be able to make its best efforts to rescue those abducted by North Korea.
What of the revision of the Constitution so earnestly sought by the Prime Minister? If the Party of Hope is added to Komeito and the Japan Reformation Party (Nippon Ishin no Kai), there will be a two-thirds majority favoring the revision of the Constitution, but some measure of pessimism is required at this point.
In the context of the pressing situation with North Korea, there is the question of whether debate on revising the Constitution can go forward. Even if discussion proceeds, there is little latitude for carrying out the public referendum that is required to revise the Constitution.
Debate on the revision of the Constitution will require the better part of a year. Even if Abe wins a third term in the election for party president next fall, there is the House of Councilors election in 2019 and the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. It will not be easy to create an environment conducive to revising the Constitution. This is perhaps why the Prime Minister has been forced to retreat and he himself has been saying that his policy on revision of the Constitution is “getting the debate started.”
Having said this, it is to be noted that those opposed to the revision of the Constitution are now in the minority. It can be said that it is now the responsibility of the ruling and opposition parties to push forward with the debate on the revision.
The situation with North Korea cannot be regarded as “a fire on the opposite bank.” Depending on how the situation develops, revision might become a pressing issue. Ought not the Prime Minister believe in his own strength and seek an opportunity to put revision to the people?
Fumito Ishibashi is the director of the Sankei Shimbun Political Department and the deputy director of the Sankei Editorial Section.
(Click here to read the original story in Japanese.)