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Japan’s Election: Prime Minister Abe’s Quest to Reform Article Nine

August 16th, 2016

By Davis Florick – Junior Fellow

Japan’s national parliamentary election on July 10th, 2016 has created significant implications for Shinzo Abe’s platform. As has been the case for decades, the predominant issue on the minds of voters was the nation’s economic standing. However, the Prime Minister’s stated goal of constitutional reform could take priority over the adjustments necessary to jumpstart the market. Shinzo Abe’s desire to reform Article 9 in order to remove some military constraints and depart from the “peace constitution” is certain to require significant political capital. Regardless, by most accounts, the election was a resounding success for the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) of Mr. Abe and its allies. Now all eyes will be focused on what the Prime Minister does next. More than likely, the LDP will strive for economic reform in parallel with constitutional change. However, achieving both “Abenomics” and Article 9 reform could prove too bold of a task. Considering the political risks of pursuing both simultaneously, Shinzo Abe’s personal conviction favoring constitutional reform may drive the government’s focus in that direction.

Examining the election’s real meaning is prudent considering what it represents. Japan’s parliament, the Diet, has two houses:  the Upper House of Councilors and Lower House of Representatives. Achieving constitutional reform requires a two-thirds vote in both houses. There are 242 seats in the House of Councilors and 475 in the House of Representatives. The LDP and its partners, Komeito and Initiatives from Osaka (IFO), had already secured the necessary majority in the House of Representatives; 314 seats are required for that majority, and they hold 340 collectively. During this July’s election, only the House of Councilors seats were contested and of the 242 seats, 121 were on the ballot this year. Provided below are the significant results:

Japan 2016 Parliamentary Election Results

Party Total Seats Entering Contested (incumbent) Gain/Loss (+/-)
LDP 115 50 +6
Komeito 20 9 +5
IFO 7 2 +5
Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) 63 46 -14

Altogether, the LDP, Komeito, and IFO emerged with 158 seats. Albeit four shy for a two-thirds majority, when other supporters are added – including independents and the Party for Japanese Kokoro (which was established in 2014 and intends to draft a new Constitution) – the Prime Minister will have reached 162. Summarily, a simple look at the election results would suggest that Shinzo Abe has successfully garnered sufficient representative support to pursue constitutional reform.

A more thorough examination of the election would indicate that the LDP won almost in spite of itself. The aforementioned table includes the DPJ, which has historically been the main opposition party. Rather than focusing on economic issues, the DPJ appeared content to center on opposing constitutional reform. While this position may have been prudent in Tokyo and in official circles, it failed to address the economic struggles many Japanese are seeking to overcome. A lack of broad interest in constitutional reform was supported by an NHK (Japanese public broadcast network) pre-election survey that showed only 11% of respondents held constitutional reform as their primary issue of concern. Furthermore, this year the DPJ had agreed to work with three other opposition parties. Probably unintentional though it may have been, this decision appears to have disenchanted some voters given the fringe platforms of the coalition. Notably, of the four opposition parties, only the Japanese Communist Party gained in the election – going from 11 to 14 seats. Adding insult to injury for the opposition, in a telephone survey conducted by the Japan Times after the election, 56% of respondents indicated they did not think Prime Minister Abe’s economic policies would improve the Japanese economy. Against this backdrop, one might, not unfairly, suggest that the LDP won because of the ineptitude of the opposition, instead of the popularity of its platform.

The role Brexit played in this vote and what it might portend for the Abe Administration’s future is also telling. Interestingly, Prime Minister Abe hinted at a fragile global economy when he delayed raising the sales tax, from eight to ten percent, in late May. Given the post-Brexit global downturn, in some quarters the Administration looks prescient. On one hand, some analysts have suggested Brexit helped fuel domestic concerns over the instability that changing governments might have at this time. The DPJ had not done well with its economic policy during its last opportunity in the prime minister’s office (2009-2012), so Brexit may have played a role in that respect. On the other hand, some have suggested Prime Minister Abe has taken away a powerful lesson from how the British government handled Brexit. Namely, a rushed referendum can cause division and lead to surprising outcomes. As a result, some have suggested Mr. Abe is therefore more likely to be cautious with constitutional reform. More than just in the realm of economics, Brexit’s political ramifications can be felt on the other side of the world.

Considering the dynamics surrounding Japan’s election, what happens moving forward will be particularly interesting. In all likelihood, the challenge in Tokyo must be that of weighing the probability of a successful economic turnaround against the time the Administration may have should the market not improve. Year-to-year growth, measured by gross domestic product (GDP), stood at 1.7% in 2012, 1.4% in 2013, 0% in 2014, and 0.5% in 2015. More importantly, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development projects GDP growth of 0.7% in 2016 and 0.4% in 2017. Should these low numbers become the reality, voters may finally call for a change in leadership. If that occurs, even without an immediate election, the probability of parliamentarians going along with what is likely to be an unpopular reform to the constitution will increasingly be placed in doubt. However, the government could delay calls for change if it is able to show even incremental improvement in the economic outlook. Progress in the market, taken in conjunction with outside issues, may help shape an environment more conducive to constitutional reform.

Fortunately for Mr. Abe, the groundwork is already being laid down for the conditions that might make reform palatable. The day after the election, the Prime Minister ordered a new round of fiscal stimuli, targeting public works programs meant to overcome lagging private investments. On July 27th details of the stimulus package were announced, with a headliner of $265 billion in promised investment. This package, likely to be approved by the Diet in September, could serve to satisfy worried domestic constituencies in the short term.

Since the election, and alongside the stimulus proposal, there have been additional concerns over Asia-Pacific instability. In particular, the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling delegitimizing most of China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea has caused a considerable stir. Chinese domestic audiences responded to the ruling so vociferously that the Chinese Ministry of Defense had to announce that war plans were not being drawn up. Yet, the government chose to land commercial airliners on some of the artificial islands to demonstrate that possession counts for something. China went further by conducting naval exercises in the aftermath of the ruling, threatening Philippine officials with the possibility of confrontation, and declaring to the US Chief of Naval Operations that it “‘will never give up halfway’ the construction of its islands in the South China Sea.” Adding to regional instability, in June a Chinese naval frigate patrolled the waters around the Diaoyudao Islands for the first time. While Chinese coast guard vessels routinely patrol the area, the People’s Liberation Army-Navy had not sailed into the Diaoyudao’s territorial waters until this incident. Taken collectively, the regional outlook may push the Japanese public toward supporting constitutional change to preserve its strategic interests.

Should Prime Minister Abe attempt to reform the constitution in the coming months, what might such change look like? He has made no secret that Article 9 is the focus of the Abe Administration. Article 9 establishes Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF) and articulates their limited role. It goes on to renounce conflict and requires an attack on Japanese territory before SDF can intervene. Most likely, Tokyo would seek to reform Article 9 to allow for active defense, thereby permitting Japan to come to the defense of its allies and partners abroad. Such an alteration would allow Tokyo to become involved in the South China Sea or the Korean Peninsula should its partners be attacked. This policy shift would represent a significant change in Japanese politics. Furthermore, it would create new dynamics for Chinese decision makers and planners. Should Beijing come out strongly against the proposal, China’s action could even fortify support for a constitutional change. Certainly reforming Article 9 will not come easy, but there may never be a better time to pursue it.

Japan’s parliamentary election on July 10th was telling for two reasons. First, it placed the LDP and Prime Minister Abe in a position to continue to pursue the much-vaunted “Abenomics” while also exploring constitutional reform. Second, the case could easily be made that the election victory said more about the opposition’s failure than anything else. Regardless, Tokyo has been given another golden opportunity to pursue economic reform. With such a majority, if Prime Minister Abe cannot show signs of progress, his days in leadership may be numbered. At the same time, although constitutional reform is not a dominant issue on the minds of many domestic constituents, the Prime Minister has a unique opportunity to accomplish a long-rumored dream. Should the economy begin to show signs of progress – there are small indications that it may – and if China continues its current posture, there may well come a time when the Japanese public becomes accepting of Article 9 reform. If the LDP can successfully steer its desired path it would mark a major inflection point in post-war Japanese politics.


About Davis Florick

Davis Florick is a Junior Fellow in the Security and Defence division. He recently completed his master's in East-West Studies at Creighton University and is a member of the 2015 Nuclear Scholars Initiative with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. His foreign relations areas of concentration include, East Asia and the former Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union.