Japan: Future for Abe uncertain after electoral setback

Prime Minister, Shinzō Abe (Wikimedia/CC)

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The Upper House elections held on 21 July in Japan were a minor set-back for the Shinzō Abe government. Along with their coalition partners, the Buddhist Komeito, they lost their two thirds majority in the upper-house.

The Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP) ended up with nine seats less, with its share of the vote also down to just over 35% of the vote. Its ally, Komeito, narrowly increased its seats, but also with a falling percentage share of the vote. Although the government still has a majority, they lack the two thirds majority needed to change the constitution (Abe advocates revising Article 9 of the constitution regarding Japan’s military forces).

The Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP) emerged as the main opposition force, with 32 seats in total and 15.81% of the votes. This was a lack-lustre performance on their part; with their percentage of the votes lower than that won in the previous Lower House elections.

As we have reported previously, the CDP initially attracted the enthusiasm of a layer of activists, as their leader Edano stated that they were not going to combine with other opposition parties with which they had substantial policy differences. The party previously outlined its opposition, as redline issues, to constitutional revision, opposition to nuclear power and increases in the Consumption Tax

Since then, the CDP leaders charted a course towards the political centre, courting people like former Democratic Party leader and Prime Minister, Noda Yoshihiku. He promoted the Consumption Tax, despite an election promise from his party not to do so.

Noda is clearly on the nationalist right of Japanese politics, believing that post-WW2 trials of class ‘A’ war criminals were “illegal.”

Following the elections, on 5 August, the CDP, is seeking to form a common voting block in the Diet (Japan’s national parliament) with independent MPs around ‘Noda’, and the successor to the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party for the People. This time the CDP advanced only two red-line issues; opposition to nuclear power and the right for married couples to use different names. No mention was made of constitutional revision or the Consumption Tax – two key issues for voters. Even Noda could probably support a change to the law on marriage and is opposed to nuclear power. The party has also moved away from the idea of an electoral block with the Communist Party, one of the issues that brought about the split in the Democratic Party, in the first place.

Despite the move to the right, the party still received the votes of a layer of union and left activists, as it is seen as the only party that could block Abe’s move towards constitutional revision. For example, even activists in the militant Kansai ready-mix concrete workers’ union, who have faced state repression in the past period (see previous articles on socialistworld.net) expressed the view that while they may not like many things about the CDP, their potential governing partners, the Democratic Party, when last in government, oversaw an abatement of state repression and arrested union members were released. However, the CDP is regarded by activists as the best of a bad lot. It has squandered any enthusiasm that it initially had when it was being attacked by the right as a reissue of the Japan Socialist Party.

Despite having the support of, at least, the big private section unions in the largest union federation, Rengo, the Democratic Party for the People (the Democratic Party’s successor), lost further ground. It is distrusted by voters opposed to constitutional revision and unpopular because of its record in office and the broken promises of the previous Democratic Party government. Its “liberal” wing is likely to be swallowed up by CDP, while its more conservative elements will be drawn to the right-wing populist, Issin.

Communist Party

The Japan Communist Party (JCP) lost one seat in the elections and its share of the vote was down from 10.74%, at the last elections, to 8.95%, this time, due to increased competition on the left. The party was in a loose block with the Social Democratic Party of Japan and the CDP. However, this alliance was limited to the single seat constituencies. The JCP lost one seat in the Osaka multi-seat constituency, where the split vote between the JCP and CDP allowed the rightist Isshin to gain two seats in its home base. However, the JCP candidate, a sitting member, finished ahead of the CDP

The Social Democratic Party of Japan (SDPJ), the remnants of the former Japan Socialist Party, was, prior to the election, expected to lose its status as national party, by falling to below 2% of the votes in the national proportional representation section. However, against expectations, it again managed to hang on with 2.09% of the votes. While the party is not a mass force outside of Okinawa, it still has a residue of support among union activists.

New kid on the block was the Reiwa Shinsengumi. This party was hailed by some as the arrival of “left populism” in Japan. The party is built around the TV personality, Yamamoto Taro, an ex-actor who gained popularity for the stance he took against nuclear power. He was first elected to the Diet as an independent backed by the SDPJ, the New Socialist Party and the Green Party.

While Reiwa Shinsengumi is not a socialist party or a workers’ party, it is clearly seen as standing on the left and took votes from parties like the JCP. The party’s programme called for the abolition of the consumption tax and opposition to the construction of the new Henoko military base in Okinawa. It advocates the banning of nuclear power, a 1,500 yen, an hour, national minimum wage, free-education, improved disability rights, full rights for LGBGT people, animal rights and improved social services.

The party posed as the voice of those excluded by mainstream Japanese Society. It chose to stand candidates who were very different to those who stood for the major parties. The two candidates that headed its proportional representation list were people with severe disabilities. Their election to the Diet has meant that the government was forced to take measures to make the Diet barrier free. While Yamamoto himself failed to get elected, the new party won 4.55% of the vote and they aroused enthusiasm from a section of voters that was generally in short supply in this election. Yamamoto very effectively showed that the consumption tax had not been used to safeguard the pension system or social services, as had originally been promised, but to cut income tax and corporate taxation in general.

Generally, though, the election aroused little enthusiasm from the mass of the population. The turnout at 48.8% was the second lowest turnout in Japan’s post-war history.  Amongst the activists in the labour movement, almost every one I spoke to expressed difficulties in deciding which candidates to support. This was partly because the complex electoral system imposes difficult tactical choices on activists. It was not just this, however. There is a widespread perception amongst working people that none of the existing parties really represents them. Loyalties differed between individuals, between the Constitutional Democratic Party, the Japan Communist Party, the Social Democratic Party of Japan and Reiwa Shinsengumi.

Article 9

Abe has made clear his desire to revise article 9 of the constitution by 2020. While these election results make that more difficult, it certainly does not rule it out. It just means that Abe would have to get opposition supporting parties on his side to do so. Already the Democratic Party of the People leader, Tamaki Yuichiro, has declared his willingness to discuss constitutional revision with the government.

Abe will attempt to use fears of China’s growing power, and conflicts over territory and history with the Republic of Korea, and North Korea’s missile tests, to argue for Japan to become “normal country” that can go to war. He is by no means guaranteed a victory in this. The 57%, in recent opinion polls, of the population opposed to sending the Self Defence Forces to the Gulf show the difficulties that Abe will face in winning a majority for constitutional revision.

The election result did not indicate enthusiasm for the policies of Abe’s government. Rather, it is a sign of the weakness of the opposition, and the continuation of the weak economic recovery. Although ‘Abenomics’ has not delivered on its promises, things have not got much worse for most people. However, this will not last indefinitely. The dark storm-clouds of trade war and a further economic collapse can already be seen on the horizon. The present stability is unlikely to survive the next few years.

Clearly, workers and youth in Japan need a mass party, drawing all the best fighting elements of the Left, and more importantly fresh forces, putting forward a programme for socialist change.

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