As Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hopes to leave his legacy in Japan’s history and also aims to win a record third term at the helm coming September, it is time to dissect his agenda for the year 2018. It seems Abe has already clearly defined his agenda for the year just begun both in domestic and foreign policy front.
First let us discuss what his domestic policy priorities would be. No doubt, revitalising the country’s economy tops the agenda. With his “Abenomics” on track, Abe’s other domestic challenges would focus on addressing the issue of declining birth rate and aging population, and the related social security issues. Related to this social challenge is the declining labour force as the country prepares to host the Olympics in 2020 and needs a large pool of labour to build the infrastructure needed for this prestigious global event. With domestic supply shrinking, will there be relaxation of immigration laws allowing entry of foreign labour to meet the nation’s needs? Also related to this is the need for nursing services for caring the increasing elderly population, which again involves immigration issues.
But the biggest domestic challenge would be his quest to enact constitutional revision, particularly Article 9 that puts limits on Japan’s defence capabilities. Abe has been a strong votary to do away with this constraining clause as the security environment in the country’s neighbourhood has deteriorated perceptibly in view of the lurking threats from North Korea’s nuclear and missile launches and therefore Abe feels that Japan needs to be prepared appropriately to face with the challenges confronting the nation. Though repeated assurances have been made during summits with the US President Donald Trump that the US stands by its security obligations to defend its ally, there still remains some doubt if the US would come to Japan’s rescue in a real crisis situation. Since North Korea’s Kim Jong-un has been threatening to strike the US if threatened, and with the possession of deliverable nuclear warhead mounted atop a missile, if a real conflict breaks out, Japan could be faced with a situation to fend for itself when the US would struggle to save any of its cities on target of North Korean attack. Such a scenario brings the issue of Japan’s preparedness to focus in coping with such a situation when that occurs, which is why amending Article 9 of the Constitution emerges as important.
Abe, however, knows that the process of amending the constraining Article is too arduous. The process of amending an Article means that the motion has to be passed by two-third majority in both the houses of the Diet and then put for a national referendum as per Article 96 to be passed by a simple majority. Given the strong anti-nuclear sentiment in the country, this seems to be real hurdle, Abe’s biggest dilemma.
It may be noted that the US-drafted Charter has remained untouched since its inception 70 years ago but Abe has resolved to revise the supreme law by 2020 when the nation hosts the Olympics. In fact, constitutional revision was a key election pledge of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party when he suddenly dissolved the Lower House last August and held election next month. The large mandate that Abe received has emboldened him now to pursue his agenda.
This would be a huge gamble if Abe calls for a referendum. It is a prerequisite for a constitutional revision and the path is not easy. If Abe dares call for a referendum and ends up in a fiasco, Abe would have to resign in disgrace. That would be politically devastating for him. Would Abe take such a risk in 2018 itself or wait for a third term in 2021 so that he buys some more time to prepare public opinion in the favour of his move? There are plenty of uncertainties at the moment on the issue. Abe is hopeful as his party members back the idea of holding a referendum in 2018 itself and might take a chance.
There are some other events already scheduled that may come on Abe’s way on the referendum move. The date for Emperor Akihito’s abdication is already fixed in the spring of 2019. The abdication, to be the first retirement of a sitting emperor in 200 years, and enthronement of the new Emperor are huge events for Japan and Abe could be constrained to undertake something controversial that would not gel well with the people rejoicing the transition of the Imperial throne. Abe also needs to keep in mind if he ends up losing the critical two-thirds supermajority in the Upper House needed to call the referendum as elections are slated for summer of 2019. So, any referendum move could be suitable only after the new Emperor’s enthronement and sometime in the fall of 2019 and December that year.
What could be then Abe’s choices? As it appears, he has limited time left to prepare for a referendum. However, if Abe cannot enact amendments in 2018, it might be mighty difficult to undertake such a task before his third term as the LDP president would end in 2021. Public interest might dissipate if referendum move is delayed and Abe therefore needs to seek party consensus as soon as possible to prepare the ground for this to happen. Public mood could swing against him if Abe fails to steer his policy carefully as was the case when his ruling LDP faced a historic rout in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election in July 2017.
The opposition is already wary at the Defence Ministry’s decision to acquire cruise missiles with an operational range capable of striking North Korean targets and to introduce the costly Aegis Ashore anti-missile system. The Constitutional Democratic Party and Japanese Communist Party could be expected not to allow Abe a free rein in pursuing his agenda of constitutional amendment and referendum and it all depends on Abe how he deals with the opposition lawmakers to get their support. If ultimately Abe senses that constitutional amendment move are not going to work, his strategy could be to prolong the longevity of his term in office.
*Dr. Rajaram Panda is ICCR India Chair Visiting Professor at Faculty of Economics and Business Administration, Reitaku University, JAPAN. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect either that of the ICCR or the Government of India. E-mail: email@example.com