Political Uncertainties As Japan Goes To Polls On December 16
On November 16, Prime Minister Noda Yasuhiko announced the dissolution of the Lower House and called for fresh polls on December 16. With this, Japan is again in the election mode. The official kickoff of the campaign start on December 4. Unlike the earlier elections, this time the election seems to have an Indian flavour, with more than a dozen parties staking their claims at the hustings. The days of the Liberal Democratic Party and the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest two political parties that have dominated Japanese politics, a la Indian political scene when the Congress and the BJP vied for power alternately, seem to have been numbered.
What is significant in the present context of Japan is that both the DPJ and the LDP seem to have lost their moorings, giving room for the smaller players to have a shot in governance collectively. The ruling DPJ has heavily bungled and is surely to lose. This does not mean that the main opposition LDP will emerge as the winner with a majority to rule again. The likely coalition government to be led by the LDP shall have smaller constituent parties whose role will be decisive in decision-making on many critical issues that the country faces.
The historic transfer of power from the LDP to the DPJ in September 2009 ended up causing a serious functional failure of politics. Now Japan finds itself in a critical situation following the March 11, 2011 earthquake, tsunami and the subsequent Fukushima nuclear disaster.
With the economy in shambles, Japan has yet to come out strongly from the disastrous earthquake, followed by the tsunami and the subsequent nuclear accident. So many loopholes are yet to be plugged. The people are questioning the sincerity of the political leaders at the helm in handling the situation. The long period of economic stagnation shows no sign of ending. Therefore, this election will be held at both a politically and economically critical time. The outcome of the election will have bearing on the future direction of Japan as a country. The voters are matured enough not to be swayed by empty slogans and false promises of the leaders; they will seek answers from parties that present programme which will contribute to improve the quality of their life.
The ruling DPJ realised that many of its promises made in the 2009 manifesto could not be implemented. The party realised and said: “We were arrogant to believe we could do everything if we came to power and immature as we did not realize the severity of steering the government.” This self-reflection reflected the concerns over the uphill battle that it is facing in the forthcoming elections. The items listed in the party’s manifesto for the 2009 general election included a handout of child-rearing allowance, abolition of the temporary gasoline tax rate, making highways toll-free and securing 16.8 trillion yen in fiscal resources by eliminating wasteful spending. Though many of these promises remained unfulfilled, the party never examined them for shortcomings.
Stance of Abe of the LDP
Relations with its neighbours such as China and South Korea have deteriorated over territorial issues. The ultra-nationalists will have a field day and their return to power will only exacerbate tensions. This will vitiate the security situation in the region. If the hawkish Shinzo Abe of the LDP returns to power, as is expected, the security situation might deteriorate as he is likely to adopt a hard-line approach towards the neighbouring countries.
Following the diplomatic crisis between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands, demands are being raised by some parties to revise the war-renouncing Constitution or for exercising the right to collective self-defence. The LDP, for example, calls for the revision of the Constitution to protect “Japan’s beautiful national land” and its people. But the Japanese people must ask themselves the question: will strengthening military-oriented approaches actually enhance Japan’s security and contribute to stabilising relations in Northeast Asia? The likely answer that they themselves will give is that such approaches will deepen suspicions among neighbouring countries about Japan’s intentions and thereby increase regional tension. Though a revision of the Constitution would likely be regarded by neighbouring countries as an attempt to whitewash its past military aggression and thereby negatively impact Japan’s standing in the international community, the counter question of how to meet the China challenge stemming from its assertiveness in recent time would negate any possible intentions of Japan to undermine history. These are the questions the voters must analyse before exercising their franchise on December 16. On the eve of elections, political parties often tend to indulge in violent populist rhetoric that fans nationalism but a matured electorate must not be swayed by promises of such aggressive policies that seldom benefit them.
On the economic front, Abe’s economic policy raises serious questions. His plans for ending deflation run risk of hyperinflation. Japan’s extended economic slump may call for extreme measures but skeptics question Abe’s monetary and fiscal proposals. His target is Bank of Tokyo Governor Masaaki Shirakawa, who has been reluctant to implement monetary easing “without limit”, as the LDP wishes, to end chronic deflation.
The market reacted favourably to Abe’s reflationary proposals. The yen has fallen against the dollar and stock prices have risen. The DPJ could not achieve by intervening in the foreign exchange market with trillions of yen. Though the yen might weaken for a while under the new administration (of Abe as expected), but it is unclear if Abe’s proposals will have an enduring impact on deflation as a weak flow of money is at the root of the problem. Abe has proposed lavish spending on public works to stimulate the economy and if this happens, this will rewind the efforts of the DPJ to cut the government’s bloated debt.
Experiences in the past do not suggest that Abe’s proposals will succeed. His reflationary policies to end persistent deflation are unlikely to succeed as extreme measures are a strong pill with potentially serious side effects. For example, after World War II, the government forced the Bank of Japan to buy government bonds to generate cash to fund a recovery. This resulted in hyperinflation and commodity prices spiked 70-fold from 1945 to 1949. In 1998, a new law abolished the power of the finance minister to replace top Bank of Japan executives, while giving central bank greater independence. Now Abe proposes to amend the Bank of Japan law. Analysts across board in Japan say that Abe’s proposals go against “lessons learned from history” as government intervention by developed countries in central bank decision-making can have serious repercussions.
The LDP leads Noda’s DPJ in opinion polls. This indicates that Abe would become Japan’s seventh prime minister in six years, returning him to the office he left in 2007. Notwithstanding what lessons history offers, Abe is likely to avoid currency intervention if he becomes Japan’s prime minister again.
Issue of Consumption tax
The DPJ together with its coalition partner Komeito took up the bold step to push for a consumption tax increase. Though the economic content of this policy is laudable, it is not easy to sell this to the people. It may be remembered that during the 2009 elections that brought the DPJ to power, this issue was not included in the manifesto but others that made lofty promises could not be implemented because those were simply not implementable. The consumption tax hike is indeed needed to resuscitate the economy. The bill to raise the tax has been enacted but whether the bill be implemented at a time when the country’s economy is in trouble is likely to be an important election issue.
The Issue of TPP
The issue of Japan’s participation in the US led-Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) free-trade zone is another issue that will dominate the electioneering. Prime Minister Noda Yasuhiko of the DPJ is keen to make Japan’s participation in the TPP as a part of the manifesto. He feels that participation in the TPP is indispensable for Japan if Japan hopes to open up future prospects through free trade. Noda is in favour of applying officially to Japan’s entry into the TPP. There is lack of transparency on the TPP negotiations and any step in haste is likely to boomerang on any party as TPP arrangements will greatly affect the lives of the people. The Japanese people are aware that the TPP is far more than just an agreement to eliminate tariff and that agriculture is not the only part of the scope that it covers. The TPP is a comprehensive arrangement among participating countries, and if implemented, Japan will have to drastically change the rules of business affecting many aspects of its society. At present Japanese people take many things for granted. TPP will alter many of those. Voters are likely to oppose parties that support Japan’s participation in the TPP arrangement. This single issue might seal DPJ’s fate.
Despite Noda’s open endorsement for Japan joining the TPP, national policy minister Seiji Maehara is cautious and said that no agreement be reached at least during the election period. Noda is in a fix and is restraint from making any formal announcement due in part to opposition from the farm sector, which fears an influx of cheaper produce from overseas under lowered tariffs. The issue of Japan’s entry into the TPP will become a bone of contention in DPJ’s election campaign against the LDP, which takes a cautious view on the subject.
Issue of Nuclear energy
Apart from the TPP issue, Japan’s energy policy post-Fukushima is the most vexed issue that political leaders are confronted with. The DPJ’s manifesto is likely to incorporate a policy to end reliance on nuclear power generation in the 2030s. But the party has not come out with alternate energy and no solution has been offered. At the same time, the utility rates have gone up caused by the zero nuclear policy, and nuclear engineers have started heading overseas. The industry continues to hollow out, impacting severely Japan’s economic future. The people will question the DPJ’s long time policy goal of emphasizing the zero nuclear policy without alternative in place, something similar to its previous manifesto. Compared to the DPJ, the LDP’s policy of continuing to utilize nuclear energy for the time being seem to be more realistic.
The nuclear issue is more complex than it appears on the surface. The Fukushima accident has raised concern on the safety of other nuclear plants that are scattered around the country. The Fukushima crisis highlighted the inherent danger of operating nuclear power plant in a quake-prone country such as Japan. Concerned citizens are asking the question that finds resonance throughout the country. They ask, is it proper for them who have experienced the tragedies of Hiroshima, Nagasaki and now Fukushima to continue to rely on technology that utilizes nuclear fission?
The much-likely-to- be-next Prime Minister Abe Shinzo of the LDP is not shy to articulate his views that nuclear power stations whose operations are judged safe should be brought back online. Though the DPJ vows to end all nuclear power generation in the 2030s, it calls for the continuation of nuclear fuel cycling to create nuclear fuel from spent nuclear fuel. But, as the Japan Times observed in it editorial on November 20, 2012, “nuclear waste storage facilities at power plants are almost full and there is little room to store newly generated radioactive waste”. It further observed that “there is still no technology that can ensure that high-level radioactive waste can be permanently stored in a safe manner”. Therefore, all political parties must address to the problem related to storage and disposal of nuclear waste.
The emergence of Nippon Ishin no kai (Japan Restoration party) has injected a new dimension to Japanese politics. Despite fundamental policy differences, Osaka Mayor and Nippon Ishin no Kai head Hashimoto Toru and former Tokyo Governor and Taiyo no To (The Sunshine Party) leader Ishihara Shintaro merged their parties, thereby creating a third force in Japanese politics. The merger established a new party with a basically conservative and pro-business policy platform. This new party that retained the name Nippon Shin no Kai includes former members of Tachigare Nippon (Sunrise Party of Japan), the small ultraconservative party headed by Hiranuma Takeo that was folded into Taiyo no To.
The outline of its new platform released recently did not mention any of its original promises to support the TPP free trade accord, get out of nuclear power by the 2030s and halve the number of Diet seats. The absence of these goals reflects the growing power of party leader Ishihara Shintaro over its founder and deputy chief Hashimoto Toru, the Osaka Mayor. Ishihara opposes the TPP, advocates continued nuclear power for energy and for diplomacy, and does not think halving the number of Diet seats is practical.
Despite this merger, there are differences in stances of its leaders on policy issues. While Ishihara opposes the TPP accord, Hashimoto supports it. While Hashimoto and Nippon Ishin no Kai have pushed for the elimination of atomic energy by the 2030s, the pro-nuclear Ishihara continues to believe the power source will remain necessary, not only for economic reasons but also to use as a diplomatic card with other nations. The new party will not include Nagoya Mayor Kawamura Takashi’s Genzei Nippon (Tax Reduction Japan) party. The Nippon Ishin no Kai has created the image of a disunited, divided party. Yet, this party may fail to field more than 240 candidates in the 480-seat Lower House. This party still will have to count on candidates from Your Party. Under an agreement in place, Hashimoto’s party will support 61 candidates running on Your Party’s ticket. But unless the two parties adjust their candidates list, they will end up vying head-to-head for seats in at least 21 constituencies. Meanwhile, Your Party, with whom Nippon Ishin no Kai is extremely close, will not merge with Hashimoto’s party and will remain separate. Hashimoto had urged Your Party chief Watanabe Yoshimi to integrate the two parties, but Watanabe refused because of policy differences. Watanabe said Your Party cannot merge with any group that has abandoned the goal of eliminating nuclear power, as Nippon Shin no kai did in order to merge on November 18 with Ishihara’s Taiyo no To. Post-election, cooperation between the two parties is highly likely. It seems highly unlikely that Hashimoto and Ishihara shall secure the minimum 241 seats needed to capture majority and thus become the ruling party.
Once the final vote counts are over, internal warfare is likely to break out in Nippon Shin no kai, with power tipping either toward Ishihara if the majority of winning candidates are from the Kanto region or, like Hiranuma, are older allies of the governor, or Hashimoto’s way if most of them hail from Kansai or other western regions where the Osaka mayor’s support rating is higher than in eastern Japan.
In the meantime, Shiga Governor Kada Yukiko is considering founding a new political party with the goal of phasing out nuclear power. Whether she fits into the “third force” evolved around Nippon Ishin no Kai is unclear at the moment. Ozawa Ichiro, the former DPJ’s kingmaker and now head of Kokumin no Saikatsu ga Daiichi (People’s Life First) is reportedly sounding Kada about forming a new force by merging his party and other small forces that oppose restarting any reactors and are against the sales tax hike, as well as Japan’s participation in the TPP accord. Also, the tiny Kizuna Party will merge into Ozawa’s Kokumin no Saikatsu ga Daiichi, ahead of the December 16 election. The Kizuna Party was launched by a group DPJ defector, many of whom are close to Ozawa, in January 2012. However, Kizuna Party chief Uchiyama Akira will not join Ozawa’s party as he is seeking to collaborate with Kamei Shizuka, the former leader of Kokumin Shinto (People’s New Party), the DPJ’s junior coalition partner, to create a third force in national politics. It may be recalled that Ozawa, former president of the DPJ, quit the ruling party in early 2012 to protest Noda’s move to hike the consumption tax.
Yet another small party led by Nogoya Mayor Kawamura Takashi and veteran law maker Kamei Shizuka is also considering teaming up with Kada. The Kawamura-Kamei force is also anti-nuclear, anti-tax and anti-TPP.
Ozawa’s and Kawamura’s parties are eyeing to tie up and want the Midori no Kaze (Green Wind Party), formed in early November, by defectors from the ruling coalition, including Tanioka Kuniko, to join. Midori no Kaze was launched by one Lower House and four Upper House lawmakers, setting the elimination of nuclear power as one of its key goals. This party also opposes participation in the TPP free-trade framework. These small parties hope to differentiate themselves from Nippon Ishin no Kai because conservative Ishihara is at the helm. With these developments, Japanese politics is passing through interesting times, something similar to what we experience in India.
Regardless of the results, a divided Diet will continue until the next summer when a House of Councilors election is scheduled. No single party will be able to realize its policy goals without the cooperation of other parties, something similar to what India is experiencing at present. All political parties should include promises in their manifestoes that are realistic and realizable.
US Policy towards Japan
How does the US, Japan’s strongest ally in East Asia, view political developments in Japan? Having been re-elected for a second term, President Barack Obama has vowed to strengthen the alliance relationship with Japan, giving Japan an important role in US policy of ‘pivot’ in Asia. The US will work with whichever party emerges victorious and forms Japan’s new government. For both the countries, bilateral ties “will remain critical” to both sides.
While the DPJ’s approval ratings have plunged, that of the opposition LDP has seen some resurgence. The US seems at times frustrated by Tokyo’s revolving door of prime ministers in recent years and consequent policy of discontinuity, though Noda seemed stable compared to his two predecessors Hatoyama Yukio and Kan Naoto.
As is likely that Abe is likely to become the next prime minister, his hawkish stance may help the US encourage Japan to play a greater security role in line with its status as a major economic power. And with the increasing bonhomie between India and the US, the relationship between India, Japan and the US will emerge as of critical importance for the peace and security of the Asia-Pacific region. Abe’s conservative foreign policy views and the growing public concern over China will contribute to the strengthening of Japan-US alliance. Under a conservative prime minister, the US would expect that Japan would increase its defense spending, enable collective self-defense and adopt less restrictive rules of engagement for forces involving in overseas peacekeeping operations. Despite the possible Japanese policy under a new prime minister serving the US objective, it is desirable that the US privately advise Abe not to push his revisionist view of Imperial Japan’s invasion and occupation of China as such a stance would needlessly inflame long-simmering regional animosity.
By Rajaram Panda