Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic party won a thumping victory in a snap election this week, giving the returning Prime Minister a renewed mandate to continue his flagship economic policy, dubbed Abenomics, and, crucially, to consider the repeal of the Peace clause in the Japanese Constitution.
The results gave Abe’s coalition a super majority, passing the 310 seat mark for a two-thirds majority in the lower house. This likely means that Abe and his Liberal Democratic bloc will have full legislative control with limited parliamentary opposition. Given that Abe’s bloc already has another super majority in the upper house, his agenda is likely to be omnipotent. The mood in Japan was one of resignation, as a stagnant political scene looks set to be dominated by Abe, a man with lukewarm public backing for his long term goal of reforming the Japanese constitution. Abe faces an internal election in two years to retain leadership of his party, but this crushing victory at the polls sets the stage for his victory, potentially extending his term to 2021.
The victory was a welcome relief for Abe, who’s position began to be called into question amid plummeting polling ratings in the summer. However, sensing an opportunity as the opposition lay in disarray, he dissolved the lower house and went to the country for a renewed mandate. Briefly challenged by the populist insurgency of a new party set up by Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike, The Party of Hope, the flare of support died away and she ended up commanding just 49 seats. The Left were without a strong opposition, with liberally minded Constitutional Democratic party limping home with just 54 seats. The mood amongst voters, according to reports, was one of deep apathy. Abe and his coalition offer stability, and that seems enough to satisfy voters for now.
However, Abe does face some considerable challenges, some of his own making.
The first relates to his ultra-loose monetary policy, Abenomics. The Japanese economy has struggled with stagnation and social limitation of growth since the early 1990’s and Abe’s policies, involving a triple plank of monetary easing, stimulus spending, and structural reforms, are designed as shock therapy to force a return to steady growth. Radical quantitive easing programs and even the setting of negative interest rates has made Abenomics a deeply controversial policy, widely debated around the globe by economists, and much of Abe’s fate rests on its success.
On a more ideological note, Abe is also seeking fundamental reform to the Japanese Constitution, a long term goal of his. The Constitution was put into place during the American occupation following Japan’s unconditional surrender in WWII, and commits the Japanese military to a purely defensive role, without offensive capabilities. Abe, who had pursued something of a neoconservative foreign policy as Prime Minister, involving hard-line stance on North Korea and close relations with the USA, views this as a giveaway to China, the regions preeminent power, and would like to see Clause Seven, which commits Japan to pacifism, abolished. However, it is not clear how much support this course of action has from the public. Though Abe has the super majority he requires, he will also need the approval of the pubic via a referendum, which most polls indicate is unlikely to be given. Abe has a grip of Japanese politics for now, but his path is not yet clear. His victory in this risky election has steadied his position against threats from enemies within his own party and outside.