, Tokyo, Japan, Oct 23 – Shinzo Abe has seized a “super-majority” in Japan’s parliament but failed to win the hearts and minds of voters suspicious of his nationalist instincts and unenthused by his drive to change the country’s pacifist constitution.
Abe now has the parliamentary numbers to start a process that would bolster the role of the military — an ambition he has long cherished.
But the victory was far from a ringing endorsement of the 63-year-old veteran — whose popularity ratings have sagged in the face of scandal — and more a win by default after he trounced a disorganised opposition.
The election confirmed Abe’s “difficult relations with the Japanese people”, said Tobias Harris, Japanese politics expert at the Washington-based Teneo Intelligence consultancy.
“There is a certain amount of appreciation for certain aspects of what he has done.” But, said Harris, “he is not loved.”
An exit poll by Kyodo News showed more than half of voters (51 percent) do not trust their prime minister, while a survey by the liberal Asahi newspaper found 47 percent of those questioned would like to see someone else in charge of Japan.
– Party of (no) Hope –
Only a few months ago, that was starting to look like a possibility.
Abe was fighting for his political survival, embroiled in scandal and smarting from an embarrassing defeat in Tokyo municipal elections.
When he suddenly announced snap polls last month, critics saw it as an opportunistic manoeuvre to take advantage of a weak opposition and divert attention from his own woes, including allegations of favouritism to a friend in a business deal — which the premier strongly denies.
For a short while it looked as if Abe’s gambit could backfire spectacularly.
The media-savvy and charismatic Governor of Tokyo, Yuriko Koike, unveiled a new party in a blaze of publicity and dominated TV broadcasts and the front pages for days.
The creation of her Party of Hope sparked an unprecedented transformation in the lethargic world of Japanese politics.
The main opposition Democratic Party (DP) effectively disbanded as scores of lawmakers jumped on Koike’s bandwagon, which — while ideologically similar to Abe’s — at least had the whiff of a fresh coat of paint.
Meanwhile, left-leaning DP members banded together to form a new progressive party, the Constitutional Democrats.
In the event, neither party could organise a nationwide campaign in the short time available and both fizzled.
“As it turned out, the Party of Hope is hopeless,” said Michael Cucek from Temple University.
It could be ten years before there is an effective opposition capable of forming a government, said Teneo’s Harris.
– Constitutional battle –
Having seen off all comers and secured a two-thirds majority in the lower house, Abe now has effective control of the executive and the legislature.
He will likely use the victory to start the lengthy process of amending the constitution, a personal passion for Abe and a select band of fellow right-wingers but largely anathema for most Japanese.
The hawkish premier wants to change the US-imposed document, seen by conservatives as an outdated legacy of wartime defeat, so Japan can formally transform its well-equipped and well-trained Self Defense Forces into a full-fledged military.
The trouble for Abe is that many Japanese feel deep affection for, and pride in, the constitution’s peace provisions, which they believe have served them well over the last seven decades.
China and the two Koreas — both victims of Japan’s 20th century adventurism — are also deeply hostile to anything that could be seen as re-militarisation.
Despite his personal ambitions, Abe is sensitive to public antipathy on the issue. He knows he cannot railroad the constitutional change, said Naoto Nonaka of Gakushuin University.
Immediately after his victory Abe pledged to “deepen” parliamentary debate and vowed not to use his super-majority to ram changes through.
In any case, there are brakes on his ambitions — any changes must be put to a referendum.
Polls consistently show that voters are far more concerned about the economy than Abe’s pet projects.
North Korea’s firing of two missiles over Japan in less than a month worked to Abe’s benefit, with many supporting his hawkish stance on security.
But the prime minister would be unwise to take his thumping electoral win for endorsement of his views on Japan’s military or the success of his economic growth policy, said Mikitaka Masuyama, professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.
He won Sunday’s election because the opposition “could not put up a united front” against him, Masuyama said.
“But this doesn’t mean that the Japanese voters are leaning towards conservative causes.”