On Sunday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) took majority power in Japan’s upper house, giving his party majority control over both upper and lower houses. This presents an opportunity for the LDP to make the difficult changes necessary to turn its economy around and make it a stronger American ally. But there are more political changes occurring in Japan’s Diet.
Last Thursday, a Wall Street Journal article indicated that for Japanese farmers, perhaps the best choice on Sunday’s ballot should have been “none of the above.” Recent statistics from Japan show that one in four Japanese is 65 or older. Age 65 happens to be the same age as the average Japanese farmer. Farming was a big issue in the election, as Abe has been pushing to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), part of his economic policy program, “Abenomics.” Japan’s powerful protectionist farm lobby argues against the trade agreement, which poses a threat to the country’s inefficient and entrenched agricultural sector. TPP supporters argue that the reforms required to join the trade agreement would improve Japanese competitiveness and benefit Japanese consumers.
Abe’s party is also the only political party in Japan still advocating for nuclear energy. Japan’s March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster and subsequent revelations of inept nuclear operations and oversight have soured the public on nuclear power, causing the country to shut down all but two of its nuclear facilities. A recent JIJI Press poll showed that 49.7 percent of Japanese were against the restart of nuclear facilities, even if they passed newly written safety standards. Because Japan has no natural energy resources, it is currently importing large amounts of gas and oil to make up for the loss of nuclear power.
Even in his first run as Japan’s prime minister in 2006, Abe’s constant pet project was the revision of Japan’s post-war constitution. His two main targets are eliminating the “peace clause” and upgrading the status of Japan’s military. Most voters support Japan’s “pacifist” constitution, with recent polls showing that 54 percent of the population opposes Abe’s proposed changes. Japan’s neighbors—specifically South Korea and China—view Abe’s constitutional proposals with alarm, given their history with Japan.
Despite these highly debated topics, the LDP managed to increase its number of seats in the upper house by 31. The LDP’s coalition partner, New Komeito, also managed to gain a seat, while even the smaller libertarian Your Party gained five seats.
This election was historic in that it was the first time politicians were allowed to use the Internet in their campaigns. It was perhaps the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) that used it the most effectively by creating and posting cartoon characters that would recite almost haiku-like catchphrases. The JCP managed to gain five new seats.
Regardless, though the LDP has strengthened its hand, Japan can’t expect to have the economic growth it had 30 years ago without changes in the way it manages its budget. Abe himself has admitted that his constitutional reform initiative is unlikely to move forward for the foreseeable future. Instead, Abe should push for economic reforms and deregulation while reducing government spending. If Abe can manage to push through market-oriented reform, perhaps Japan will see an increase in its Index of Economic Freedom ranking next year.