Photo/IllutrationPrime Minister Shinzo Abe places a symbolic red flower next to the name of winning Liberal Democratic Party candidates in the July 21 Upper House election. (The Asahi Shimbun)

For Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the word “Idoshi” (the Year of the Boar according to the Chinese zodiac) has an ominous ring to it.

In the previous Idoshi 12 years ago, when both unified local elections and the Upper House election were held as in this and any other year of the Boar, Abe, who was then serving his first tenure as prime minister, suffered a devastating defeat in the chamber’s poll that caused the coalition of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito to lose a majority to the opposition camp.

The electoral pasting forced him to resign just after one year of holding the top office.

The July 21 Upper House election, however, allowed Abe to wipe out the stain of the defeat in 2007.

The LDP-Komeito alliance won more than half the seats that were contested. But the combined seats taken by the parties favoring Abe’s initiative to amend the Constitution--the LDP, Komeito and opposition Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party)--fell short of retaining the two-thirds majority needed in the Upper House to initiate an amendment.

The election results indicate Abe’s call for “political stability” has won public support. But that should not obscure the Abe administration’s arrogance and lax discipline, a serious and glaringly obvious problem caused by the prime minister’s prolonged stay in office supported by his overwhelming political power.

Abe cannot respond to this weighty public mandate unless he injects a dose of healthy tension into his own administration and policymaking, takes the votes of opposition parties seriously and makes sincere efforts to realize consensus-oriented politics.


The ruling camp’s election strategy seemed to be focused on avoiding debate on sensitive policy issues at the Diet as much as possible to prevent opposition parties from scoring political points while attracting public attention by holding one diplomatic summit after another.The Budget Committees of both houses, the Diet bodies that should play the leading role in keeping watch on the government, did not hold a single meeting since April. The committees ignored both opposition requests and Diet rules that mandate the committees to convene a session when one-third or more of their respective members demand it.

When a recent Financial Services Agency panel’s report that said elderly couples would need at least 20 million yen ($185,200) in savings to make ends meet over a 30-year period drew public criticism, the administration, concerned about the negative repercussions on the election outcome, refused to accept it.

The administration also delayed the publication of the government’s latest five-year review of the long-term fiscal prospects for pension benefits until after the poll.

Meanwhile, the administration invited U.S. President Donald Trump as the first state guest to visit Japan after Emperor Naruhito’s ascension to the Chrysanthemum Throne. It arranged a flurry of high-profile diplomatic events including sumo watching by Abe and Trump together at the Ryogoku Kokugikan sumo hall in Tokyo, staged to show off Abe’s close personal ties with Trump.

The administration went so far as to ensure that this year’s Group of 20 summit, which was held in Osaka, took place shortly before the start of the official campaign period for the Upper House poll. This scheduling broke with tradition under which the event is held after the year’s Group of Seven summit.

The victory on July 21 has extended Abe’s national election winning streak to six. But voter turnout fell below 50 percent for the first time in 24 years to the second lowest on record.

These facts raise questions about the substantiality of public support for the administration.

In Asahi Shimbun polls, the reason for supporting Abe cited by the largest number of his supporters was that he “looks better than others (other potential candidates).” Far more chose this reason than those who cited Abe's policies and personal qualities.

In another Asahi Shimbun survey conducted during the campaign period, voters were asked what they thought was the most important thing for Japanese politics right now. The most popular answer was “stronger opposition,” cited by 43 percent, compared with the 36 percent for “stable power of the ruling camp.”

Japanese who think there should be more healthy tension in politics are not in the minority. Instead of simply considering the numbers of seats won by parties as the only facts that count, policymakers should make serious efforts to grasp the real wishes of the public.


Abe made his proposal to amend the Constitution a central election issue. He may try to cast the election outcome as the public’s decision to support a party willing to engage in debate on the Constitution as a pretext for pushing Diet deliberations on constitutional amendments.While the pro-amendment forces failed to win the two-thirds majority required to initiate an amendment, Abe, referring to the opposition Democratic Party for the People in a TV interview on the night of July 21, said he will try to win over lawmakers willing to debate the issue.

But voters cast ballots for various reasons. It would be a twisted argument to say the election results signal solid public support for constitutional amendments.

Abe should recall what happened after the Upper House election three years ago. Even though the pro-amendment forces secured a two-thirds majority, no powerful movement emerged to promote constitutional amendments.

While the LDP, Komeito and Nippon Ishin are generally viewed as political forces favoring amendments, these three parties have widely different agendas and priorities concerning the issue. There is no strong public opinion in favor of changes to the Constitution at the moment.

In another Asahi Shimbun poll during the campaign period, 40 percent of the respondents said they did not want to see the forces supportive of constitutional amendments win a two-thirds majority, against 37 percent who wanted them to gain the crucial number.

Abe said on July 21 that he wanted to achieve his initiative to rewrite the postwar Constitution by the end of his term as LDP president in autumn 2021. If he tries to push through this initiative only because of his own ambition in the face of a slew of tough policy challenges both on the domestic and diplomatic fronts, Abe would only cause a serious division within society.


Now that the Upper House election is over, Abe will have to tackle a raft of formidable policy challenges he has been dancing around.One is how to respond to the people’s anxiety about their sunset years, which was a key election topic. The administration needs to lay out a convincing vision about the future benefits and burdens of the social security system--including the public pension program--while incorporating the results of the government’s latest five-year review of the long-term fiscal prospects for pension benefits.

During the campaign period, Abe said there will be no need to raise the consumption tax rate again in addition to the planned hike to 10 percent in October, at least for the next 10 or so years. He needs to offer a convincing explanation about how it will be possible to finance the government’s spending without taking the step.

The trade negotiations with the United States will pose tough diplomatic challenges. In his May tweet about the bilateral trade talks, Trump said, “Much will wait until after their (Japanese) July elections where I anticipate big numbers!”

As for the key issue of Japan’s tariffs on farm imports from the United States, Tokyo wants to limit the cuts within the range it has agreed on under the Trans-Pacific Partnership multilateral trade pact. But it is unclear how much of a reduction Washington will demand.

This is not an issue Abe can deal with just by capitalizing on his much-touted close personal ties with Trump.

A controversy has surfaced over whether Japan’s Self-Defense Forces should participate in a U.S.-led military coalition to safeguard strategic waters near the Strait of Hormuz, where tensions have heightened due to recent Iranian attacks on commercial tankers. This is a question with huge, defining implications for Japan’s postwar foreign policy.

The results of elections in a democratic society do not give the victorious parties a carte blanche.

The administration and the ruling camp cannot make correct decisions concerning the course of the nation without serious dialogue and debate with the opposition parties and the public.

--The Asahi Shimbun, July 22