Japan’s Politics in 2018: Prospects for Abe’s Constitutional Revision Agenda?


Prime Minister Abe is seen as likely to win reelection as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party this September, enabling him to lead Japan for another three years. He is eager to get Japan’s post–World War II Constitution amended for the first time, but accomplishing this will be a major challenge.

Abe’s Likely Reelection as LDP President

In the October 2017 general election for the House of Representatives, the Liberal Democratic Party won 284 seats in the 465-member chamber, the lower house of the National Diet. The LDP’s victory was amplified by the current electoral system under which 289 members are elected from single-seat constituencies, an arrangement that is advantageous to a major party facing a fractured opposition, as was the case this time. Even allowing for this factor, though, the outcome undeniably represented a popular mandate for the current administration of Prime Minister Abe Shinzō, who heads the LDP.

Abe’s current three-year term as LDP president will end in September 2018. Given the strength of his administration and the support he enjoys from the major factions within the party, he seems to be on track to reelection to his third consecutive term. Indeed, if the LDP were to elect someone other than Abe—who would also replace him as prime minister—less than a year after he won his renewed mandate in the October 2017 election, it could be seen as a violation of the will of the people.

It appears certain, however, that Abe’s reelection will be contested by Ishiba Shigeru, a 60-year-old veteran who has served as defense minister, agriculture minister, and LDP secretary general but now holds no cabinet or LDP post. Noda Seiko, 57, currently minister for internal affairs and communications, has also revealed her interest in running. But as matters currently stand, there seems to be a limit to the growth of Ishiba’s support within the party, and Noda has yet to show she can even garner the 20 endorsements from other LDP legislators that she will need to run.

One key question is what Kishida Fumio will decide to do as the party election approaches. Kishida, who heads a faction of his own within the LDP, served as foreign minister from the start of the current Abe administration in December 2012 through August 2017, and he continues to serve under Abe as chairman of the Policy Research Council, a key organ of the LDP. He is widely seen as a likely successor to Abe as LDP president and prime minister. Up to now he has pursued a strategy of winning these top posts by gaining Abe’s designation as his favored successor.

If Kishida maintains this stance and Abe wins a third term as LDP president, his position as Abe’s heir apparent will remain unchanged. But there is no guarantee that Abe’s influence will remain strong enough through the end of his third term to allow him to designate his successor when he steps down. Meanwhile, legislators younger than Kishida, who is currently 60, may emerge as new rivals over the next three years. One potential candidate is Kōno Tarō, 54, who succeeded Kishida as foreign minister. And the charismatic Koizumi Shinjirō, 36, who is now the LDP’s chief deputy secretary general, might also throw his hat into the ring in 2021.

If Kishida changes his stance and decides to run this coming September, he will thereby distance himself from Abe. But even if he does not win, as long as he makes a good showing, he will raise his profile as the prospective post-Abe leader. If, on the other hand, he does dismally, coming in well behind Ishiba, he could end up completely losing his place in the contest to take over after Abe steps down. Even so, some members of his faction argue that as a would-be leader he needs to fight his way to the top. Kishida will probably continue to read the winds within the party and postpone his decision whether or not to challenge Abe this time until the last possible minute.

Abe now appears to be in a rock-solid position to win a third term in September, but that does not mean his path is free of potential pitfalls. One is the possibility of a significant decline in popular support for his administration. Since the general election last October, polls have shown the administration with favorable ratings of around 50%. But if the positive ratings fall below the negatives—as they did around the time of the Tokyo metropolitan assembly election last July, a race in which the LDP took a major drubbing—his support within the party could erode.

Another possibility is that Abe could win in September with support from the LDP’s parliamentarians but fall behind Ishiba in the vote count among rank-and-file party members. This would seriously damage his ability to lead.

In the 2018 ordinary Diet session that will convene in January, Abe can expect to face renewed grilling over the Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Gakuen affairs, both involving accusations of favoritism toward school operators. The political world will be keeping a close eye on how the prime minister deals with these questions and how the public reacts to his handling of them.

Four Hurdles in the Way of Revising the Constitution

In the campaign for last October’s general election, Abe pledged to work toward amending Japan’s postwar Constitution—one of the planks of the LDP’s party platform—and he was quick to follow up on this pledge after the election. But in order for him to leave a legacy as the first prime minister ever to succeed at this task, he will need to clear four hurdles: (1) formulating an LDP draft of the proposed amendments, (2) reconciling the LDP’s position with that of the Kōmeitō, the junior party in the ruling coalition, (3) winning the concurrence of both houses of the Diet by two-thirds majorities, and (4) securing ratification of the changes in a national referendum. If he wins a third term as LDP president, he can hope to hold on to his post as prime minister until September 2021; this will give him more time to reach his goal. But given the conditions that the administration faces and the political calendar for 2018 and beyond, the hurdles will not be low.

The LDP has called for amendment of the Constitution in four areas: inclusion of explicit reference to the Self-Defense Forces, provisions for strengthening education and making it tuition-free, measures on dealing with emergencies, and elimination of the two-prefecture electoral districts of the House of Councillors. The party’s Headquarters for the Promotion of Revision to the Constitution is working on a draft, but the process of achieving consensus has been lagging. Meanwhile, the Kōmeitō, which lost six seats in last October’s election despite its partnership with the LDP in the ruling coalition, is aiming to present a more distinct identity and is extremely cool to the LDP’s amendment agenda. This position is partly a reflection of sentiment within Sōka Gakkai, the lay Buddhist group that constitutes its main support base.

The new Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, which emerged from last October’s election as the top opposition force in the lower house, opposes the LDP’s four-point amendment plan and will not cooperate in getting the revisions through the Diet. Meanwhile, opinion polls fail to show any clear rise in popular support for amending the Constitution, so even if a set of amendments is approved by the Diet, it is not certain that they will be ratified in a national referendum.

A key event on the political calendar relating to Abe’s hopes of revising the Constitution is the election for the House of Councillors to be held in the summer of 2019, when half of the 242 seats in the chamber will be in contest. Currently the LDP, Kōmeitō, and two small parties that favor amending the Constitution together just barely hold the necessary two-thirds majority in the upper house. And 69 seats held by members of the LDP’s parliamentary group will be up for election. Unless the party wins something close to this number, the two-thirds edge may be lost. But garnering a number of seats in the mid-sixties range will be no easy task for the LDP, which won only 55 in the most recent upper house ballot, held in 2016. With this in mind, Abe may well push to get a set of amendments approved by the Diet before the summer 2019 election. But this deadline will leave him without much time to spare.

In the light of previous Diet deliberations on important bills, it is certain that each of the two houses will spend well over 100 hours considering any proposal for constitutional amendment. And there will be only three Diet sessions between now and the 2019 upper house election: this year’s ordinary and extraordinary sessions and the ordinary session that will convene in January 2019. Also, it will take 60–180 days from the approval of amendments by the Diet to the holding of a national referendum. The calendar for 2019 is already loaded with a series of major events in addition to the upper house election, such as the ceremonies accompanying the stepping down of the current emperor and enthronement of his successor, Japan’s hosting of the Group of 20 summit and the Tokyo International Conference on African Development, and the staging of the Rugby World Cup. So whatever date may be set for the referendum, the timing will be quite tight.

How much progress will Abe and the LDP make toward their goal of revising the Constitution in this year’s Diet sessions? The answer will probably give us at least a hazy view of Abe’s timetable—and whether he will stick to the idea of securing Diet approval before the upper house election.

A Realignment of Opposition Forces?

After Prime Minister Abe dissolved the House of Representatives and called a general election last fall, the Democratic Party, the top opposition force, fell into disarray and fractured. Some DP lower-house legislators joined the brand-new Constitutional Democratic Party, while others joined the Party of Hope launched by Tokyo Governor Koike Yuriko in September. Yet others formed their own independent parliamentary group in the lower house while retaining their DP membership. And the DP itself remained in existence, holding on to its presence in the upper house. As a result, the opposition camp as a whole became even more fragmented than before. The support levels for all of the opposition parties except the Constitutional Democrats have been languishing, while the Party of Hope has developed an internal fissure over the issues of constitutional revision and the security legislation package that the Abe administration pushed through the Diet last summer.

The Constitutional Democratic Party is wary of joining forces with either the Party of Hope or the DP, fearing that it might lose support among the liberals who form the bulk of its backers. But unless the opposition parties can pool their forces behind the same candidates in the upper-house election, particularly in the single-seat districts, it is extremely unlikely that they will be able to defeat the LDP.

We are likely to see further splits and regrouping within the opposition camp during the course of the year to come.

(Originally published in Japanese on January 5, 2018. Banner photo: Prime Minister Abe Shinzō (center) answers reporters’ questions at his official residence on December 12, 2018. © Jiji.)

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