Thursday, 25 July 2013

Japan's elections significant step for stability

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling coalition won a majority of seats in the upper house of Japan's parliament this week, giving it control of both chambers for the first time in seven years, according to exit polls.

Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its coalition partner New Komeito won a combined 71 seats, giving them a total of 135 seats in the chamber, more than the 122 needed for a simple majority.

Although the third-lowest voter turnout for a Japanese Upper House election of only 52.61% tempered the LDP win, Mr Abe has clearly attracted favour from many voting Japanese after the country’s economy improved remarkably under his governance. There is little surprise his party eventually took control of Japan’s Parliament.

Now that the LDP control both houses of Parliament, the political gridlock of the past few years could be efficiently overcome. The election results should make it easier for Mr Abe to pass legislation and will be a significant change for Japanese politics, potentially ushering in a new period of political stability. Ideally this will include regional stability, but this aspect is far from certain.

Mr Abe can now work on the third partition of his revitalisation plan, theatrically termed “Abenomics” by observers and analysts. The rest of Mr Abe’s final economic plan involves overhauling outdated sets of laws and regulations as Japan increases competition in labour markets and negotiates entry into foreign trade agreements such as the TPP.

The step is also rumoured to include key tax breaks, new special business zones, and a move to increase female participation in the workplace.

Just as important, the troubled Japanese power sector also needs attention as imports of hydrocarbons have increased the prices of electrical energy dramatically. Liquefied natural gas imports increased by 18% year-on-year in 2011 and 5% in 2012. On top of that, Japan consumed 41% more crude oil in 2012 compared to 2011.

Japan closed all but two of its nuclear reactors after the 2011 Fukushima meltdown and the earthquake which devastated parts of the island country.

But already, despite heavy controversy, Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority is planning to restart a total of 10 nuclear reactors, however probably not before 2014. In the meantime, billions of dollars are being spent on fossil fuels while a debate over nuclear energy awaits resolution.

With greater legislative powers perhaps the LDP will apply more focus on the rumoured normalisation of Japan’s military in the coming years. This will require looking closely at the prickly issue of revising Article 9, the section of Japan’s constitution forbidding the country from developing and using military power for any purposes other than self-defence.

Symbolism is very important in Japanese culture, and updating the way the country deals with military defence issues would go a long way in proving that Japan is bouncing back from a long hiatus and becoming a great regional power once again.

The ruling LDP understand how important normalisation of Japan’s military will be for the future of the dynamic Asia Pacific environment. Japan’s recent Defence Ministry white paper underlined its military as being the ultimate guarantor of security, a personal view Mr Abe holds closely stemming from a deep nationalistic ideal.

Mr Abe’s views on Japan’s role in the region worry some observers, and his fresh political majority is unlikely to assuage those doubts. He has said in past public debates that Japan’s responsibility in World War II should be left to historians, and that Japan’s “aggression” towards China and Korea is a matter of perspective.

But ultimately, in a region increasingly dominated by a strong Chinese navy, Mr Abe recognises the country’s need for a counterweight military. And Japan’s neighbours, also worried about a rising China are applauding the idea of a stronger Japan. But a big part of Mr Abe’s reasoning to push for military normalisation is a decreasing reliance on US military support and protection.

Normalising Japan’s military is stepping away from US protection. And as the ongoing tensions over US military basing rights on the Japanese islands of Okinawa show, the Japanese are more ready and willing to take responsibility for their security.

The recent Upper House elections in Japan are significant because the LDP’s plans for both the Japanese economy and military can be better streamlined. Japan will still struggle to overcome deep demographic problems and high indebtedness, but a strong coherent government is a positive turn of events from Tokyo’s perspective.

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