Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan decided to call for a snap election in late October, to consolidate his control in the legislature. The resulting parliamentary elections soon delivered an electoral win that provided for another super majority. This will allow for two crucial developments in Japan to move forward.
The first one will be to continue the economic and financial reforms instituted by the Prime Minister known as Abeconomics, and the other is the push to modify the present wording of the Constitution. By retaining a two-thirds legislative majority, the Prime Minister has the power to call for amendments to the document.
Prime Minister Abe believes the time has now come to abandon the pacifist portion of the Japanese Constitution, that only allows for self defense of the home islands. The provision known as Article 9, renounces war in its entirety.
The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) headed by the Prime Minister Abe and its smaller coalition partner Komeito, along with three independents, had received 313 seats in the 465 seat Diet. Although the final voter turnout was only 53.69% of the electorate,the second lowest participation rate ever,it was still slightly better than in 2014.
It was a gamble for Shinzo Abe and his party who have been plagued by two political scandals and relatively low, public approval ratings. In a recent poll 55% of voters view the Prime Minister as untrustworthy, while just 44% had confidence in him.
It is also important to note that although the LDP is by far the largest party, under the Japanese proportional representation system, it actually received support from only 33% of the electorate.
If he is able to serve out his new four year term, he will be the longest serving prime minister in post-war Japanese history.
He had previously been the Prime Minister from 2006 to 2007.
The early election proved to be worth the risk for Abe, unlike the political fiasco the Conservatives experienced in the United Kingdom, where Prime Minister Theresa May actually lost seats in Parliament.
Japanese conservatives view a change to Article 9 as long overdue, given the rising geopolitical tensions in northeast Asia. Prime Minister Abe claims he needs a new mandate to deal with the threat, posed by the increasingly belligerent North Korean regime.
Unlike the United States, which would like Japan to begin to take on a larger military role in this part of the world, other nations in the region have a different view.
China, South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam and other nations in Southeast Asia are somewhat apprehensive in varying degrees, of a more militaristic Japan.
Memories of World War II and Japanese aggression, still spark heated political controversy in various sectors of society, seventy two years from the end of hostilities.
On the other hand, the rising threat of China and the anxiety that the United States is being overstretched in its defensive commitments, make a militarily stronger Japan more palatable, for many political leaders in East Asia.
For many Japanese voters Abe’s ongoing stewardship, represents a return to stability. The cycle of a number of short lived governments, have ended since Abe become Prime Minister again in 2012. The LDP has dominated Japanese politics for most of the post war era.
Many voters decided to stick with the LDP, because of the rising tensions on the Korean peninsula. The consensus is that the more traditional stewardship of Prime Minister Abe, will be better equipped to deal with the rising crisis there.
The October 22 election was the third landslide victory for the LDP party, with Shinzo Abe at the helm. It is the fifth successive electoral victory for the Prime Minister.
The Japanese stock market responded approvingly to the LDP electoral victory, with the main exchange Nikkei reaching a high not seen since 1992, a quarter of a century ago.
The LDP was able to capture 281 out of the 465 seats, far beyond the simple majority needed to move legislation forward. Although Komeito showing in the recent election, was far less impressive with just 29 seats, their participation along with three independent legislators, gives the Prime Minister the two-thirds majority he needs.
The present numbers allows the passage of most legislation, without the approval of the upper chamber.
The October victory is even more impressive, when one considers that the total lower house membership was reduced by ten seats, dropping from the 475 to the present 465. Before the election the LDP held 284 seats.
The LDP has also benefited from the present division among the opposition.
The creation of a new party, the Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP) less than three weeks before the election, further separated the resistance to the tenure of Shinzo Abe. This left leaning party was able to win 55 seats, allowing it the second largest representation in the new legislature. The party gained some 20% of the votes cast.
However, it will not be enough to derail the Abe foreign policy agenda. Nor is his program that radical. He already achieved a reinterpretation of the constitution in 2014. This previous modification allowed Japan to come to the aid of allies, if the latter were attacked.
In 2015, the legislature went further in authorizing the use of Japan’s Self Defense Forces (SDP) in the self defense of allies acting in a militarily coordinated manner.
Once the Prime Minister shepherds the legislation to change the constitution, through the lower house of the Diet, all that will be needed is a simple majority in a national referendum.
In economic matters, there will be little change in policy. He will need to deal with the delayed imposition, of an increase in the consumption tax, now due to rise in October 2019.
If new revenues actually become available, it will allow the government to finally provide the resources necessary, to offer free kindergarten.
Other legislation that will likely become law soon, involves restricting the amount of overtime, individual firms can legally demand of their employees.
Two issues where the Prime Minister has not put forward legislation, concern the rapidly aging population and the excessive amount of government debt.
The median age in Japan is 46.9, the second highest in the world,out of a population of 127 million. It is just ahead of Germany at 46.8. Only the tiny principality of Monaco, has a higher median age of 52.4.
Unlike Germany, Japan discourages immigration of any kind. So there is little that can be done, to reverse the present rise in the median age.
By 2025 the Japanese median age will exceed 50 years. In 2040, it will rise to above 53 years of age.
The associated costs of this aging of Japanese society, will place an incredible financial burden on the national economy. This is especially the case in Japan, where life expectancy is approaching 84 and is due to rise further.
Medical and pension costs for this growing segment of the population, will be enormous in future years. It will greatly add the pressure to the other intractable issue facing the country, which is the excessive rise in national debt.
In 2016, the Japanese debt to GDP (Gross Domestic Product) ratio exceeded 250%, for the first time. The present government budget deficit is 4.50% of GDP and due to low rates of economic growth, is unlikely to get much better.
Most analysts become concerned when the debt to GDP ratio exceeds 100%. Japan passed that milestone already way back in the mid 1990’s.
The Japanese economy has suffered two decades of slower growth and stagnation. This followed years of rapid expansion and growth for most of the post war era.
Despite a recent downward revision in growth, the Japanese economy has experienced 7 quarters of expansion, the longest run since 2006. This was in part a result of Abeconomics, which called for more fiscal stimulus,exceptionally low interest rates, and endless rounds of quantitative easing.
Yet, despite the massive government intervention, growth has remained below 1% through 2016. This year there is widespread hope, that economic expansion will finally remain above 2%.
The political future of Prime Minister Abe will depend on his ability to provide for more economic growth and to begin tackling the almost insurmountable issue of excessive government debt.
Absent a foreign policy disaster, like war with North Korea, where the Japanese home islands might well come under attack, it is the economic and financial issues that will continue to press on Prime Minister Abe.
For him to remain in office until 2020 or possibly beyond, he will need to competently manage both of these almost insurmountable problems.