MELBOURNE, Australia ― Japan’s prime minister has secured a strong mandate at the country’s snap general election over the weekend, setting the stage for potential constitutional revisions that will cement a more proactive security stance.
That said, most expect such revisions to be an upward battle.
Final results of the election, which has been slightly delayed by a typhoon making its way along the east coast of the northeast Asian country, put the coalition of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, or LDP, and junior partner Komeito at 312 seats in Japan’s 465-seat lower house.
This is lower than the coalition’s current total of 326, but still higher than the 311 it needs to form a supermajority. It also all but ensures Abe is set to secure a third term as president of the LDP in a leadership contest next September, which will make him Japan’s longest-serving prime minister. Corey Wallace, an Einstein postdoctoral fellow in the Graduate School of East Asian Studies at Freie Universitat in Berlin, Germany, says that fact would be good for continuity in Japan’s security policy.
The result also leaves Abe in a potentially better position to push for his longtime goal of revising Japan’s pacifist constitution to be more assertive on the security front. This would require Abe to work together with other pro-revision opposition parties, as coalition partner Komeito has been reluctant to agree to revise the pacifist aspects of Article 9 of the constitution, Japan’s renunciation of war.
Wallace argues, however, that sidelining Komeito in favor of the more hawkish parties on constitutional change could be “suicidal” given the LDP depends on Komeito for electoral success by way of mutual coordination in electoral districts. Add to this the expected public backlash over what may be seen as overly drastic and assertive changes in Japan’s defense posture and that this issue may be fraught with political danger for the government.
Agreeing, Tokyo-based defense watcher James Simpson also cautioned against thinking Abe’s victory is a mandate for revision, telling Defense News by email that Abe’s electoral win “is probably owed to the self-destruction of the primary opposition party (the Democratic Party of Japan) and fracturing of the opposition as a whole, along with the little time they’ve to create public support ahead of the election.”
He added that it was difficult to conclude that the Japanese public went to the polls to hand the LDP a mandate for revision; polling actually showed that the Japanese public was “still generally divided on the issue, as they are on Abe’s primary economic strategy,” with Wallace adding that “the public either doesn’t see the point of change or trust Abe’s intentions.”
This was despite the Abe administration trying to pitch the election as seeking a mandate to “deal with North Korea,” which Simpson says has “long been the pretext for reversion to standard military traditions and missions, and for constitutional revision in general.”
Another change that may result from this election is that there could be a renewed push for Japan to acquire what it has termed “counterstrike capabilities” to enable it to strike North Korea’s missiles. This is actually allowed under the existing constitutional framework, although previous Japanese governments have been unwilling to push for these capabilities lest it be seen as overly aggressive.
Despite public skepticism, it’s expected Abe will continue to pursue his longstanding goals of normalizing Japan’s military within its constitution, with the specifics of the LDP’s constitutional revision plans likely to be presented to the parliament and the public by mid-2018. Abe has also pledged a referendum on the issue following the unveiling of the details of the proposed changes.
Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News.