EDITORIAL: Lawmakers can't be allowed to obscure issues on Japan’s future course
This year’s ordinary Diet session convened on Jan. 4, immediately after the traditional three New Year holidays, an unusually early start of the national legislature’s work.
This is an extremely important Diet session.
The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to initiate an amendment to the Constitution after the Upper House election slated for this summer.
The unusually early summoning of the Diet is a move to push ahead with a constitutional amendment.
The early beginning of the regular Diet session also makes it possible to hold simultaneous elections for both houses.
Although it is unclear if Abe will actually adopt this electoral tactic, simply having this option makes it easier for the ruling camp to create a division within the opposition bloc.
The ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party and its junior partner, Komeito, already controls more than a two-thirds majority in the Lower House. The Abe administration is aiming to secure a two-thirds majority also in the Upper House to rewrite the Constitution. Such a presence in both chambers is needed to initiate any constitutional amendment process.
ABE CHANGES STANCE AFTER ELECTIONS
At the Upper House election, Japanese voters will have to decide on whether to give Abe a clear and lopsided mandate to pursue his political agenda. The election could shape up as a major turning point for postwar Japan.
This Diet session will offer an important opportunity for the public to think about the nation’s future course before the Upper House election. We urge both the ruling and opposition camps to hold in-depth debates on key policy issues to give the voting public a well-founded basis for their decisions at the polls.
In his New Year news conference on Jan. 4, Abe said he wants to start tackling “new challenges for building a new future for the nation” in 2016, stressing his policy efforts to create “a society where 100 million people will play active roles,” his vision for Japan’s future.
But we cannot take these words at face value. The Abe administration has a history of emphasizing economic issues before elections and then forcing through its favorite policy initiatives by using the power of numbers after winning the polls. The administration has often used this political ploy on the strength won through an election.
This was the case after the 2013 Upper House election, when the administration successfully sought the enactment of the state secrets protection law, and also after the 2014 Lower House election, when it pursued, again successfully, the passage of new national security legislation.
Lawmakers of both the ruling and opposition camps now believe that Abe’s next political goal is a constitutional revision.
In a late November meeting of a group of conservative politicians he himself leads, Abe made the following remark: “We need to recall the original political goal adopted (by the LDP) at its foundation, which was to change the various systems created during the period of occupation (of Japan by the Allied Powers), including amending the Constitution.”
If the ruling coalition wins in simultaneous elections for both Diet houses, the administration will have three years to pursue its policy agenda without having to face any national poll. Even if Abe does not opt to dissolve the Lower House for simultaneous elections, a victory in the upper chamber will give the coalition more than two election-free years.
That will create a political environment that allows the Abe administration to make even bolder political moves than those it has already taken, including initiating a constitutional amendment.
BLOCK ATTEMPTS TO OBSCURE REAL ISSUES
The Abe administration has shown a clear tendency to change its policy narrative after elections in various areas, including the economy.
One typical approach used by the administration involves talking only about “benefits” for voters before elections, delaying any reference to a painful increase in the burden on taxpayers until after the polls.
The draft supplementary budget for the current fiscal year, for instance, contains 330 billion yen ($2.77 billion) of spending to pay 30,000 yen each to old people with small pension pots.
This spending will put a heavy financial burden on future generations while its beneficiaries include many people with ample assets.
As for the proposed food exemptions from the scheduled consumption tax rate hike in April 2017, the administration has postponed its decision on how to finance the 1 trillion yen needed for the measure.
The administration has also shown a habit of changing its political tune in the area of national security.
Although the security legislation that passed the Diet last year is slated to come into force in March, the administration has decided to put off, until after the Upper House election, the addition of one important task to the list of new missions the Self-Defense Forces is expected to perform in United Nations peacekeeping operations under the laws.
The task is to rescue foreign forces or other organizations that have come under attack in areas away from the zone where the SDF is engaged in PKO activities.
The administration has also postponed submitting a bill to the Diet that would revise Japan’s Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) with the United States to expand the scope of the SDF’s logistic support for U.S. forces. The revision would allow the SDF to provide ammunition to U.S. forces, for example.
Public opinion is sharply and equally divided over the security legislation. The administration apparently wants to avoid stirring up fresh public opposition to the legislation before the vital election.
The opposition parties have the heavy responsibility to prevent the ruling camp from obscuring key policy issues during the last Diet session before the election and ensure in-depth discussions on these topics.
OPPOSITION PARTIES SHOULD SEEK BROAD COOPERATION
What kind of role should the opposition parties perform to counter the Abe administration’s dominant power?
First and foremost, they should offer a realistic alternative to Abe’s government through effective maneuverings at the Diet, electoral cooperation and joint policymaking.
Calls for repealing the security legislation, which is strongly suspected to be unconstitutional, and protecting constitutionalism, which the Abe administration has failed to respect, can galvanize opposition parties into joining forces against the powerful ruling coalition.
As long as the opposition camp remains fragmented, there will be no political force that can effectively represent people concerned about the direction in which the government is trying to lead the nation.
More than anything else, opposition parties need to seek cooperation with a broad spectrum of people by responding sympathetically to their wishes and concerns.
Last year, the government’s initiative to enact the security legislation provoked various civil actions against the move, including demonstrations in front of the Diet building.
What opposition parties should recall now is the fact that decisions on the future of the nation are, after all, up to the people with whom sovereign power resides.
The Diet can initiate constitutional amendments, but they must be approved by the people with a majority vote in a special referendum.
The vital choice facing the nation is between politics simply driven by the power of a majority won through an election and politics more based on broad consensus built through sympathy and solidaity with the public.
This choice offers hope for new politics.
The voting age will be lowered to 18 from the current 20, starting with the Upper House election.
The Diet has a duty to debate key policy issues from a long-term perspective that encompasses not only the present but also the future when the new young voters will play leading roles in society.