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Did Japan aim at a referendum?

What did Shinzo Abe achieve by early dissolution of parliament

Did Japan aim at a referendum?
Photo: Extremely rare photo of Japanese Prime Minister in military camouflage near a tank machine gun. Source: china.org.cn

Valery Kistanov

Head of the Center for Japanese Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies
The ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the Komeito Party won 313 parliamentary seats in the elections to the House of Representatives (lower house) of the Japanese Parliament held on 22 October. This allowed her to keep a two-thirds majority in the main chamber of the country's legislative body.

The results of the elections, published October 24, showed that the LDP received 284 deputy seats in the decree chamber, taking into account independent candidates who moved to the camp of the Liberal Democrats immediately after the elections. Her younger partner in the coalition in the face of the Komeito Party now has 29 seats.

The Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (KDP) has strengthened its positions, gaining 55 seats, far exceeding the number of 15 seats mandated by the party before the elections. As a result, the KDP became the largest opposition party in Japan. However, the number of seats belonging to her was reduced in comparison with the 73 places won by the Democratic Party (DP) in the previous elections in 2012. The DP, the predecessor of the KDP, was the most numerous opposition party in the country prior to the elections, but before the elections it split into three parts. One group of its members turned to the side of the newly formed Hope Party and acted in the elections under its flag, the other part formed the KDP, and the remaining members of the DP participated in the elections as independent candidates.

Formed just a week before the announcement of the election campaign, the Hope Party, led by the governor of Tokyo, Yuriko Koike, appeared in the elections extremely poorly. The number of seats for her was reduced from 57 to 50.

The total number of deputy seats in the lower house of the Japanese parliament has decreased by 10 (from 475 to 465) compared with the previous general elections in December 2012. The number of seats won by the LDP in the October elections was reduced by seven compared with the 291 deputy mandates received by the party in the elections five years ago. Nevertheless, the Liberal Democrats were able to exceed the level in the 261 place, which gives their party an absolute stable majority in the lower house. This kind of majority provides the opportunity for the party or the party bloc to lead all the standing committees of the chamber and ensures, accordingly, the majority in these committees.

The remaining members of the election received the following number of seats in the lower house: The Japanese Communist Party - 12, the Osaka Party of Japan Restoration (Nippon Isin-no Kai) - 11, the independent candidates - 23.

At first glance, Shinzo Abe, as a result of elections, strengthened the foundations of his power, which gives him the opportunity to win a third term as chairman of the LDP in the party elections in September next year. This, in turn, will make it possible also to extend his stay in the Prime Minister's chair for a third term until 2021. This course of events will create more favorable conditions for progress towards the realization of its long-standing political goal of revising the pacifist Constitution of Japan.

To initiate a nationwide referendum on the revision of the Constitution, more than two-thirds of the deputies of the lower house of parliament are required to support them. This opportunity was provided by the Abe coalition led by the results of the voting in the parliamentary elections of October 22. Now the Prime Minister has the right formally to propose such a referendum at the regular session of the parliament, which opens in January 2018. The outlook, however, may not be as rosy as the forces supporting Abe imagine.

Opinion polls show the deep dissatisfaction of the public with the Abe government, and the nation is seriously divided over its proposal to review the 9 article of the constitution, denied war, in order to legitimize the Japanese Self-Defense Forces. According to a poll conducted by the liberal newspaper Asahi Shimbun after the elections, 51% of respondents said they do not want Abe to continue his work as prime minister, and only 34% of this desire. These data contrast sharply with the results of the October elections, which show that many voters cast their votes for the LDP only for the lack of an obvious alternative.

Suddenly, like a well-known creature from a snuffbox, the emergence of the Hope Party caused the collapse of the opposition, despite initial hopes that it would, on the contrary, lead to its unification. This ensured a confident victory of candidates from the LDP in 289 single-seat constituencies. In most of these districts, several candidates from different opposition parties opposed the LDP candidate immediately, who naturally lost. This made it possible for one of the Japanese experts to wittyly call the LDP's winnings in the elections "a victory due to defeat".

Despite criticism in the country of the economic course called Abenomics, Abe's victory was also aided by the relatively favorable situation in the country's economy. So, the unemployment rate as of August, fell to 2,8%, while usually it exceeds 4%. But still, as the Japanese analysts point out, for the most part, the opposition should blame itself for its weak performance in the elections. During the pre-election campaign, the opposition parties did not submit clear proposals in the economic and social spheres, which could be contrasted with the Abe government's policy.

Instead, they focused on criticizing Abe and members of his cabinet for the patronage of businessmen close to the prime minister. This strategy was not supported by voters, as they traditionally prefer the problems of jobs and the economy in national elections.

However, weak opposition support by the electorate does not necessarily mean strong support for all Abe's political initiatives. The said poll "Asahi Shimbun" showed that only 37% of respondents support Abe's proposal to reconsider 9 article of the Constitution of Japan, and 40% oppose such revision. This result demonstrates that the nation, as already indicated, is deeply divided on this issue, although Abe put this question in the last elections not in such a tough form as at the elections of the 2012 year. This was reflected in the fact that the raspiarennaya Party of Hope, which stands for revision of the Constitution, was actually "blown away" during the election campaign, while the Constitutional Democratic Party could become the opposition party No. 1. The KDP strongly opposes this revision. If the KDP becomes the main opposition force in the parliament, it will be able to significantly postpone the debate in it regarding a nationwide referendum. Moreover, the ruling coalition itself has repeatedly stated that a referendum on the revision of the constitution can be proposed to the nation only after the consent of the largest opposition force.

In its draft revision of the 2012 constitution, the LDP proposed to allow Japan to fully use the right to collective self-defense in accordance with the UN Charter, thereby significantly expanding the legislative framework for joint military operations with its main and only ally - the United States of America. But in May of this year, Abe proposed that the 9 article be revised only in terms of legitimizing the status of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, which he claims would not mean a change in the country's defense-oriented military policy.

In recent years, public opinion polls in Japan show that the majority of respondents trust the Self-Defense Forces and consider them constitutional, despite the fact that the 9 article states that the country has refused to possess ground, sea and air forces, as well as other military capabilities. According to Japanese political analysts, Abe put forward his adjusted proposal, clearly given the high level of public confidence in the Self-Defense Forces.

As the influential Asahi Shimbun writes, in the end, it is the nationwide referendum, not the games in the numbers in the parliament, that will determine the fate of the 9 article, as the Japanese prime minister himself repeatedly stressed. For the revision of any article of the country's main law in a referendum, more than half of the voters are required to support. Polls, however, indicate that about half of the electorate does not accept this revision. Judging by all, a significant part of voters fear that this move will only benefit those forces in the country that seek to emasculate Japan's post-war foreign policy.
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