Japanese awoke this morning to find that the Liberal Democratic Party had won a massive supermajority in the lower house, more than doubling its seat share from 118 to 294 seats. Its coalition partner Komeito won 31 seats, and the hawkish Japan Restoration Party also won 54 seats, nearly matching the governing Democratic Party of Japan. This is likely to have significant constitutional consequences: the head of the LDP, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is an advocate of constitutional revision to modify Article 9. With the minor right-wing parties, he is likely to have the votes to achieve the required 2/3 majority in the Lower House for proposing a constitutional amendment.
The conventional interpretation of the election is that the majority of citizens were voting not for the LDP or constitutional amendment. Instead, they voted to punish the DPJ for its betrayal, incompetence and internal strife. And they voted for a stable, powerful government to deal with domestic and international crises. Many even refused to vote. The voting rate dramatically dropped from 69% to 59%, which had significant consequences for the DPJ in single-member districts: their voters didn’t show up, while the LDP’s did.
Voters don’t realize that they have may have acted to support the right wing’s claims that too many constitutional rights have spoiled the nation, and that only conscription and nuclear weapons can restore Japan’s position as No. 1 in Asia. Japanese may pay for this in the coming years. The government doesn’t respect free speech and human rights, but has been elected through a democratic political process and will enjoy majority support if it can improve the economy and unemployment rate.
During the last Abe government, the LDP proposed amending the constitution, among other things introducing the word “army” into Article 9. The government fell before the amendment could be introduced into the Diet. According to Article 96, constitutional amendments require proposal by the Diet with a 2/3 vote in both houses, followed by a majority vote in a public referendum. To secure a constitutional majority, the LDP will have to win upper house elections held next summer. If a coalition can be formed to secure a 2/3 vote there, it may proceed to propose amending Article 96 to lower the threshold for proposing a constitutional amendment.
An illusion among Japanese elite bureaucrats is that the US won’t allow a right-wing Japan to go too far, i.e., to abolish constitutionalism/enhance militarism. So most of them do not take the new LDP government too seriously. But my view is a bit more pessimistic. The US policy makers are at best indifferent. For them the conflict between a rightist Japan and communist China & DPRK, a war between Asian reactionaries, might be seen as good for the US interest, a new kind of “double containment”.
Should it occur, constitutional revision in Japan will have serious regional consequences. Not only will it draw China closer to North Korea, but South Korea too will turn toward China to hedge the Japanese threat—while Japan’s right-wing government and LDP, who consider themselves the only legitimate agent of the US interest in the East Asia, will rely on the “US-Japan alliance” to overcome the international isolation they will be faced with. This will put the US into a bind.
For constitutionalists and constitutional scholars, we may be entering a critical juncture. The prewar experience has provided us with a model: but in that period our scholars turned to focus on comparative constitutional law or foreign constitutionalism without criticizing developments at home. This time we should be more vigilant.