What does the DPJ, and/or the opposition in general, need to do before the House of Councillors elections in the second half of the year to either have a chance of preventing the LDP gaining a majority in both houses, or, at least make it difficult for the LDP post-election to do as it wishes, potentially to the detriment of the nation?
Abe is off to a good start in terms of managing the narrative about his second stint in the PM’s chair, without having really done all that much, domestically at least. At least for now it appears that he has reversed the recent (or is it?) trend of prime ministers careening downhill in support ratings from day one (with only minor recoveries) in charge, although that may be a function of very low expectations, pessimism, and psycho-political exhaustion on the part of the Japanese citizenry. From the DPJ’s point of view, despite being punished and chastened, it is doing even worse in public opinion polls, which will likely lead to another thrashing in the July House of Councillors elections. The DPJ will have to be rather careful about the particular fights it picks, and arguably will need to cooperate on certain policy and legislative programs to gain any visibility. Being seen to be obstructive while Abe is on the upswing is, after the last two experiences of both obstructionist DPJ and LDP oppositions is going to test the public’s patience. At the very least, from the public’s point of view, the DPJ could assist in implementing policy in opposition, something which it failed to do, for reasons for which it is equally culpable, while in government.
However, the DPJ and others will be very aware that the LDP will try and only deal with the easy and/or the “popular” policy issues, or issues that make it look like it is being constructive (in contrast to the Tanigaki era), while trying to keep internal peace within the party and within the LDP-Komeito coalition until at least after 2013 HoC elections, something that the DPJ failed to do in the lead up to the 2010 HoC elections in terms of its issue selection and party management. The opposition will need to complicate this picture as much as possible, even if to save the country from a potentially rather extreme agenda.
The Abe administration has been evasive on a number of issues. Abe himself has only been prominent in foreign policy and has tightly controlled information and is managing access to his person so as to avoid as much controversy as possible. So far his cabinet appears to have been reasonably disciplined in terms of (not making) gaffes. While Abe and his conservative proxies have sent out a number of signals regarding the more nationalist aspects of the agenda, Abe and top government officials have been saying very little about what Abe may or may not exactly do in regards to issues like changing the constitution and/or revising the constitutional ban on collective-self defense, and relooking at some of the issues and statement regarding Japan’s wartime behaviour.
The goal for the DPJ in particular will thus be to pin the Abe administration down on a variety of issues and ensure that it actually has to at least make clear statements about what it is going to do post-HoC election in terms of:
1) The TPP.
The administration has indicated that they will put off a decision until after the HoC election. It may be that the LDP is expecting that there will be realization that the TPP is too optimistic and that, after all, some “exceptions” will become allowable. There is a general sense that 2013 will probably be the last year where the different sides attempt to negotiate the most aspirational/ideal form of the TPP. Even alliance managers in DC have noted that it is unlikely the US itself will strike a free trade deal with no exceptions. Japan and the LDP will likely be ready to join if this realization does indeed come about. From the opposition’s point of view, however, letting the LDP have its own way in this regard is far too easy, especially given how much agony the DPJ suffered even just talking about maybe, possibly, joining the talks.* Pro- and anti-TPP forces will attempt to push Abe on this issue closer to the House of Councillors elections, even if just to stir dissent within the LDP itself.
2) House of Representatives Electoral Reform.
Abe made a promise to Noda when Noda called the election late last year that more thorough electoral reform would be considered in the next Diet session. Much like with Noda’s promise to hold an election “soon” around negotiations with the LDP and Komeito on consumption tax, the opposition will need to make this an issue of honesty and probity of the new government. If Abe takes up this promise AFTER the House of Councillors election, and after a majority has been secured in both houses, then it hardly needs to be said that the outcome is going to be very bleak for opposition government for some time in Japan.
3) The Murayama and Kono Statements, and the Yasukuni Shrine visit.
This is a really important issue that the DPJ in particular just cannot let the administration get away from in terms of committing decisively one way or another. Arguably this is not just to complicate things within the LDP itself, and to make the issue difficult for the Abe administration by putting some much needed daylight between the general public and the noisy revisionist base, but should be addressed as an issue of vital national importance. Japan’s competition for various nations’ affections, both in and outside Asia is going remarkably well while China is starting to make people, even former moderates and sympathizers in the region and beyond, more uncomfortable. A replacement in any way of either of the two statements, the Murayama one in particular, will eliminate almost all gains almost instantly. My personal theory is that the current talk about the various statements represents a form of “dog whistle” politics purposefully undertaken while the public is distracted during new years and by talk over “Abenomics” and the economy, that will not end up coming to anything substantial. This, other things being equal, should be mainly because Abe surely (?!) knows how bad such acts would be for Japan’s relationships with the very countries that are critical to its national interests, including his own foreign policy agenda. It may be that, irrespective of how much Abe himself would like to give this group what it wants, he will string the revisionist base a long for the meantime and give them hope – after all, who else but Abe and this particular cabinet would help them realize their dreams of “restoring Japanese pride” or whatever it is that they believe is so vital. The issue for Abe is that the public will likely give Abe some leeway to address other issues for a period of time, but this will not last. And it would be unforgivable for the opposition to let the issue of absolute commitment (or otherwise) to the two statements slide before the July election, especially if I am wrong in terms of my personal theory. As for making an issue of a potential Abe visit to Yasukuni Jinja after the July election, this may have to depend on future events. It is likely that the direct fallout either way in the current environment domestically will be negligible, unless Abe jeopardizes an improvement in relations with China by visiting the shrine. If relations are still tense, and Chinese boats in and around the Senkakus come August, then the public may be rather unaccommodating in terms of concerning themselves with Chinese criticism on this issue. The implications for foreign policy management will be somewhat more challenging, of course, and may indirectly hurt Abe both at home and abroad, although not as bad as revision of the Murayama and Kono statements would be.
4) Constitutional Change, Security Policy, and Emergency Response.
This is a potentially complicated one for the opposition. There are first of all, actually areas of overlap in terms of what the various political groups would like to see in terms of changes to Japan’s security policy – as the Algerian disaster unfolds with a very likely high number of Japanese fatalities, this may further push the various groups together. This is one area where striking an inherently antagonistic pose to the LDP and Abe’s agenda may backfire, especially if he builds political capital through a successful, even if short-term, economic recovery and/or the implementation of a coherent (even if mistaken) economic plan and growth strategy. In order to moderate perhaps some of the more unwise elements of the agenda, the opposition may have to commit to working with the government in a proactive way and attempt to build a consensus around security policy and a timetable for constitutional revision, by embracing a process that appeals to the public in terms of it being sufficiently deliberative and not rushed, and moderate (AKA legitimate, cf. “constitutional reinterpretation”). It may be wise for the DPJ to get out ahead of the LDP and the public, which has, and may even more so, become more hawkish (but not necessarily “militaristic”) in 2013 regarding regional security. This is of course notwithstanding an unlikely turnaround in the Chinese approach to East Asia in general, and the policy of challenging Japan’s effective control over the Senkaku Islands in particular. I suspect here the key is to restrain, not to obstruct. While the Diet already has its own process for looking at the constitution and revision, it appears that it is treading water. Perhaps the DPJ should take the initiative prior to the election but with sufficient time for the LDP to commit or reject, and propose a multi-partisan commission of some sort that will also solicit the views of the public and other stakeholders. The Komeito (who really actually doesn’t want the LDP to do too well in July, but can’t really say so out loud) may be sufficiently concerned with its LDP coalition partner and could be open to backing such a proposal. If Ishihara can be sidelined even further in favour of Hashimoto et al, then the JRP may also be amenable to such a proposal as it would likely give them more visibility and not let the LDP have its way in terms of making the running around security issues within that proportion of the public interested in a stronger security policy.
One of the advantages of Noda’s “early” call for the election is that 7 months is sufficient time to allow the public to get to know the Abe administration, 2.0. If the public is still not one hundred percent sure of what Abe might do on some very important and consequential issues come July, they may be very reluctant to turn over both the House of Representatives and the House of Councillors to the administration for potentially up to three years without a clear policy program. It is only fair to the public for the opposition to at some point start asking the right questions and to be relentless in doing so, but by also being constructive at the same time.
* One remembers that when Maehara Seiji, early on in the TPP talks during the DPJ era, came out and suggested that ultimately if the TPP was going to work against Japan’s national interests that Japan could, and should, withdraw from negotiations. Maehara was of course, 100 percent correct, even if saying so was very unwise. And indeed it was unwise – the DPJ and Maehara was assailed for being “naive” and “inappropriate” and all other manner of things. Perhaps fairly so. Nevertheless, fast forward two to three years and a top level LDP official said pretty much the same thing – to thunderous silence and a deafening lack of concern within the media.