Editorial: Upper house election opportunity to review Japan's democratic politics
参院選へ 安倍首相の手法 民主政治を問い直す時
The battle between ruling and opposition parties has begun as the campaign for the July 10 House of Councillors election is scheduled to kick off on June 22.
Three and a half years have passed since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe returned to power in December 2012. As Abe is predominant in the political world, his government has taken advantage of its majority in the Diet to overwhelm opposition without even attempting to form consensus. After winning an election, the Abe government has acted as if it had been given carte blanche.
One cannot help but wonder whether Prime Minister Abe will retain his predominance following the upper house race.
Attention is focused on how voters will evaluate the past 3 1/2 years of Abe government. Moreover, questions should be raised over how democratic politics should work.
When he announced at a June 1 news conference that the government has decided to once again postpone a consumption tax increase from 8 percent to 10 percent, Prime Minister Abe said he will "seek voters' trust" in his government over the decision in the upper house election. "The biggest point of contention is whether to speed up Abenomics (the economic policy mix promoted by his administration) or roll it back," he told reporters.
The phrase, "seek the voters' trust" usually means dissolving the House of Representatives for a general election that could lead to a change of government. When he decided in November 2014 to delay the consumption tax hike the first time, the prime minister dissolved the lower house for just that reason. This time, he is trying to ask if voters support his latest decision through the upper house race. The prime minister may have wanted to show his determination to stake his political life on the decision.
However, one should keep in mind that Abe has repeatedly sought the voters' verdict on Abenomics in particular.
In the last upper house election in 2013, Abe emphasized the achievements of the "three arrows" of his government's economic policy mix, while he stressed during the December 2014 lower house race that Abenomics is "the only way" to achieve economic recovery.
After these elections, however, the Abe administration placed priority on other policy issues.
Following the last upper house election, his administration hastily tried to pass the Act on the Protection of Specially Designated Secrets allowing the government to keep secret not only sensitive security information but also information disadvantageous to the administration, which could threaten freedom of speech. Also fresh in people's memory is the ruling coalition's railroading of security-related legislation that could run counter to Japan's war-renouncing Constitution. The ruling coalition did not bring these policies up for debate in elections held shortly before the laws were passed.
Before the enactment of the security laws, the government appointed a Foreign Ministry bureaucrat who shares views on the issue with the prime minister as head of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau. This was a blatant bid to smooth the reinterpretation of the Constitution to open the way for Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense. The Abe Cabinet then decided in July 2014 to change the interpretation of Article 9 of the supreme law.
In other words, the Abe government carefully laid the groundwork to drastically change Japan's security policy while carefully preventing the topic from being a key issue during elections.
These are the issues that require thorough explanation as they could split public opinion. The Abe government appears to have used the economic policy mix as a cover to change Japan's security policy and achieve other of the prime minister's most cherished aims.
Prime Minister Abe's ultimate political goal is undoubtedly to revise the pacifist postwar Constitution. Nevertheless, the prime minister has failed to clarify specifically which clauses he wants to change and how. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is reluctant to make the issue a point of contention during the upper house election campaign.
Still, if the ruling LDP-Komeito coalition plus other parties in favor of constitutional amendment -- such as the Osaka Ishin no Kai (Initiatives from Osaka) -- won a combined two-thirds of the seats in the upper chamber, the prime minister would certainly speed up moves to change the Constitution. Constitutional revisions can be proposed only if supported by two-thirds of all members of both Diet chambers. Voters should keep this in mind.
Prime Minister Abe's claim at the June 1 news conference that the government would only postpone the consumption tax hike because the world economy is on the brink of crisis, while Abenomics is producing steady results here in Japan, is far from convincing.
It is apparently not the prime minister's style to admit his own failures. This appears related to his tendency not to listen to different opinions.
Abe has occasionally shown himself to be a realist, such as when he signed the Japan-South Korea agreement late last year on the comfort women issue, over which Tokyo compromised to a certain extent. He was able to make that compromise because his government has a strong power base.
However, he has certainly made light of Diet discussions, as was shown when he jeered at an opposition party legislator during Diet deliberations, saying, "Ask your question quickly." Intraparty discussions among those who have diverse opinions within the LDP have disappeared.
The prime minister also tends to simplistic divisions between friend and foe. Since the inauguration of the Abe government, there have been moves within his Cabinet that look designed to intervene in TV news coverage critical of the prime minister.
The minimum voting age will be lowered from 20 to 18 in time for the upper house election. In preparation, supplementary teaching material on democratic politics, compiled jointly by the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry and the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry, have been distributed to all high school students across the country.
The material says democratic politics means politics through discussion, and that a final decision is generally made by a majority.
At the same time, it goes on to say, "To make good use of decisions by a majority, diverse opinions should be expressed and if minority opinions are right, they should be utilized as much as possible. Policy measures can be more effective if people are convinced by the decisions."
This is the basics of democratic politics. Needless to say, opposition parties cannot win support from voters if they only voice stiff opposition to government policies. Specific policy discussions should be held during the upper house election campaign.