- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 22, 2017

The ruling coalition of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appeared to secure a historic election victory this weekend, edging the country closer to revising its pacifist constitution as President Trump prepares to visit Asia to discuss North Korean nuclear aggression, trade and the evolving U.S. role in East Asia.

Final vote tallies are expected Monday, but early results show Mr. Abe has cemented his chances of winning another three-year term next September as leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, clearing the way for him to become Japan’s longest-serving prime minister and to preside over the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

Washington analysts expect the White House to welcome the victory. Mr. Abe is a known “trusted Trump ally” who has cultivated a personal relationship with the new American president and who regularly supports the president’s aggressive stance toward North Korea — which has recently test-fired missiles over Japan.

Early next month Mr. Trump is scheduled to travel to Asia for the longest overseas journey of his presidency. The trip will be a major push to nail down a common front against Pyongyang’s development of nuclear weapons and further isolate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, according to the White House.

First elected in 2012, Mr. Abe will likely continue policies he has pursued in the nearly five years since taking office: a hard line on North Korea; close ties with Washington, including defense; a stimulative monetary policy to end the country’s long economic stagnation; and a push for nuclear energy.

Previewing the vote last week, Michael J. Green, a Japan specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former top security aide for Asia under President George W. Bush, predicted a decisive Abe win could make the upcoming meeting with Mr. Trump go more smoothly.

“It would lead, I think, to a better summit meeting because Prime Minister Abe would, with a victory, be facing the president in a very strong position, likely to stay in power, you know, until 2021,” Mr. Green said.

Mr. Trump is expected to visit Japan from Nov. 5-7 with South Korea and China, two other nations critical to the crisis over North Korea, on the itinerary thereafter.

Winning gamble

Despite a typhoon that lashed parts of the country, voters went to the polls Sunday faced with the question of whether to give Mr. Abe’s LDP and its junior partner Komeito another two-thirds supermajority in the lower house of parliament.

In unofficial results, the ruling coalition had won at least 312 seats in the 465-seat lower house, Japanese public broadcaster NHK said, exceeding the benchmark for a constitutional supermajority by at least two seats.

Mr. Abe said the victory indicated that voters support his policies and want his political leadership to continue.

“I think the results reflected the voters’ preference for a solid political foundation and their expectations for us to push polices forward and achieve results,” Mr. Abe told NHK.

During the summer, Mr. Abe’s support ratings fell to around 30 percent after accusations of political favoritism to the prime minister’s allies, sparking talk that he might be vulnerable as leader of his party and prime minister. A “humble” Mr. Abe on Sunday night acknowledged the damage political scandals had done to his administration and vowed to work to win back voters’ trust.

Less than a month ago, he dissolved the lower house and forced the snap election. The lower house chooses the prime minister and is the more powerful of the two chambers of parliament.

Analysts saw Mr. Abe’s move as an attempt to solidify his political standing at a time when the opposition was in disarray and his support ratings had improved.

Late Sunday, headlines from The Japan Times framed Mr. Abe’s victory as a sage political move: “Abe’s gamble pays off as ruling bloc heads for two-thirds majority in Lower House,” but also warned that the country at large remained skittish about the prime minister’s long-term quest to alter the pacifist constitution and allow Japan to expand its military capabilities.

‘Existential threat’

Japanese polls showed that Mr. Abe’s victory was also tied to what analysts were calling a “growing existential threat” from Pyongyang’s nuclear program and threats to “sink” Japan into the sea. These fears have dovetailed with Mr. Abe’s long-sought bid to revise Article 9 of Japan’s postwar constitution.

Enacted by the country’s American occupying forces two years after the end of World War II, Article 9 calls for the complete renunciation of war and has limited the Japanese military to a strategically self-defense force, albeit a well-equipped modern military that works closely with the U.S.

Late this summer, Mr. Abe’s hawkish new defense minister said the military had begun training for overseas missions, such as U.N. peacekeeping deployments.

That came roughly a month after Mr. Abe declared a reinterpretation of the constitution to allow Japanese forces for the first time in decades to come to the defensive aid of allies under attack.

Mr. Abe’s party and its nationalist supporters have advocated constitutional revisions for years and view the constitution as the legacy of Japan’s defeat in World War II and an impediment to Japan’s full emergence as a modern industrial power.

But the recent round of posturing drew sharp reactions from other powers in North Asia, particularly China, where authorities remain leery of a fully remilitarized Japan and its impact on the balance of power in a region still marked by unsettled historical and territorial disputes.

Any change to Japan’s constitution, which has never been amended, requires approval first by two-thirds of parliament, which Mr. Abe’s LDP and its junior partner Komeito appeared to secure on Sunday. It would then have to win a public referendum.

Some U.S. analysts say the path ahead is not certain.

Patrick Cronin, who heads the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, recently told The Washington Times that “there is nothing certain or likely when it comes to something such as revising the constitution.”

“Democratically elected leaders have numerous brakes on their power, and Abe is a successful politician who makes pragmatic choices and necessary compromises when faced with obstacles preventing him from achieving 100 percent of his goals,” he said.

At the same time, Mr. Cronin said, what the Abe administration is doing is “not a play for war, but a defensive move to preserve Japan’s interests amid a rising China and a less-dominant United States.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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