Shinzo Abe

Behind Japan’s election, a right-wing coup against democracy is being staged

Kevin Rafferty says with both Shinzo Abe and challenger Yuriko Koike in favour of constitutional change, all signs point to a revision of the pacifist clause, no matter what most Japanese think

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 October, 2017, 3:02pm
UPDATED : Monday, 09 October, 2017, 7:34pm

Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has called a snap general election claiming he needs a mandate to solve problems, many of which exist because he did not use his last mandate more effectively. Media hubbub is swirling round whether Abe’s gamble may fail because he has underestimated Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike.

The odds are long for Koike because Abe gave less than four weeks’ notice of the election and she is scrambling to find enough candidates to contest seats for the Diet.

Furthermore, excited headlines about whether Koike can become Japan’s first female prime minister miss that a right-wing coup is already beginning against democracy.

Japan’s political leaders clash over constitution, tax in televised election debate

Polls show 55 to 60 per cent of Japan do not want to change the pacifist constitution. But Abe makes constitutional change a central election plank, while Koike and her lieutenants demand that candidates support her hardline views on the constitution. Whoever wins on October 22, supporters of constitutional change are likely to have a two-thirds majority. “All” it would require is for Abe and Koike to get together to force the issue.

Reliable barometers of the public mood suggest 60 per cent-plus of ordinary Japanese people are unhappy that Abe is spending public money on an election, but when asked what they will do, they shrug and mutter shouganai (“it can’t be helped”).

Abe timed the election carefully. The opposition Democratic Party was fragmented; it enjoyed just 8 per cent support. To prevent an upstart challenger seizing the moment, Abe gave short notice and a 12-day campaign, which begins on October 10.

But Koike created a buzz as a rival long before she broke from Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party. It rejected her as its Tokyo governor candidate last year, so she won on her own, cementing her grip on the capital by crushing the LDP in prefectural elections in July.

Tokyo governor vows to use city as policy model for rest of Japan

She upstaged Abe again just as he declared his intention to go for a snap election by announcing the new Party of Hope, which she called “a reformist party in the truest sense”.

In a straight fight between Abe and Koike, she would have a good chance. As a former news anchor, she understands the need for a good presentation. She champions women’s rights, giving her an advantage with half the voters. Abe looks increasingly harassed.

But this is a parliamentary election, not a presidential one. Koike needs a raft of her own candidates and alliances. Abe and the LDP have the advantages of experience and the deep pockets of being the established party of government.

Koike did score a small coup, though. Freshly elected Democratic Party of Japan leader Seiji Maehara has encouraged his members to run under Koike’s party flag. Her colleagues declared they would be selective choosing the “refugees”, a word showing how far Japan’s centre-left has fallen.

Is Japan’s long slump finally ending?

Abe has many supporters who point out that Japan’s economy has grown for six quarters in succession, unemployment is minuscule and Japan is one of the safest, most secure countries on Earth.

But his signature policies, especially Abenomics, womenomics and better child care facilities have proved slogans rather than working policies, as he has devoted time and political capital to other matters, notably changing the constitution.

Some critics claim Koike’s party is merely LDP-lite; but she would more likely be a populist Abe. She wants to stop the impending consumption tax hike and to “have zero nuclear power plants by 2030”.

She and Abe agree on amending Japan’s 1947 constitution, with the so-called pacifist clause renouncing war in their sights.

Should Article 9 be removed or reworded? Should Japan’s Self-Defence Forces be acknowledged as armed forces in the revised document, and with what reference to their role and powers? What other changes and updates should be made?

In constitutional discussions between Abe and Koike, modern-day pacifists are not likely to get much of a hearing. When it comes to the people, the choice will be to take it or leave it.

Kevin Rafferty, a former professor at Osaka University and World Bank official, has edited daily newspapers in more than 30 cities