Japan is having an election next month. Here’s why it matters.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
(Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images)

Japan’s government has just announced plans for a snap election ostensibly about the country’s economic policy. The true stakes, however, are far higher: There is a real possibility that this election will erode Japan’s post-World War II commitment to pacifism — and see a US ally in one of the most unstable parts of the world build up its military.

The country wasn’t supposed to have another parliamentary election until 2018. But on Monday, the center-right Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that elections would be held early, on October 22 — less than a month from now.

This kind of surprise election might seem weird to Americans, who are used to campaign seasons that span the course of years, rather than weeks. But it’s something that happens with some frequency in both Japan and other parliamentary democracies like Great Britain, where prime ministers are empowered to call a new election if they believe it to be in the nation’s interest (or in their own).

In this case of Japan, experts say Abe’s decision is less about what’s best for the country and more about what he thinks is best for him. For the past few months, Abe has been suffering in the polls due to corruption scandals, but the dismissal of some allegedly corrupt cabinet members in early August — paired with public support for his aggressive response to the North Korea crisis — appear to have pushed those numbers back up. Abe likely believes that those polls will take a downward turn as time goes on, making it smart to call a vote now rather than waiting till the regularly scheduled election next year

The consequences could be huge. Abe, a nationalist by Japanese standards, has long been pushing for Japan to build up its military and prepare to use force well beyond its borders if necessary. That mean amending Japan’s post-World War II constitution, which commits the country to a pacifist foreign policy. A large enough victory in this election would allow Abe to push through some version of “constitutional revision,” as it’s called — putting the country down the road to remilitarization.

“Abe will try to push for constitutional revision while he still can,” Daniel Smith, a political scientist at Harvard who studies Japanese politics, tells me. “If he does poorly, it’s probably back off the table.”

The impact would resonate far outside Japan’s borders. China, in particular, has long been deeply concerned about the prospect of a fully militarized Japan — and would see any move toward it as a threat to its security. Managing the resulting tensions would be a major challenge for American diplomacy in the region — and it’s not clear if the Trump administration would be up to the task.

So while this election may be motivated by simple political self-interest, it could end up having major long-term consequences for a vital part of the world. Here’s what you need to know to understand the upcoming vote.

The decision to call this election is entirely about Abe’s political fortunes

Earlier this year, Abe was in trouble. Two corruption scandals, implicating both his wife and several members of his parliament, had tanked his historically high approval rating. On August 1, 60 percent of Japanese voters disapproved of Abe’s performance while a scant 32 percent approved, according to an average of Japanese polls complied by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA.

Since then, though, his numbers have gone up substantially — as you can see on the below chart of Sasakawa’s average:

Abe approval rating, mid-July through late September.
(Saskawa Peace Foundation USA)

This has happened for three reasons, which together explain why Abe is calling the election now.

First, he fired a number of cabinet ministers in August, including unpopular Defense Minister Tomomi Inada. This sent a message that Abe was taking the scandals seriously.

Second, US-North Korea tensions exploded — leading to, among other things, Pyongyang firing a missile over Japan for the first time in over a decade. Abe has a long track record of handling issues with the North; he actually traveled to Pyongyang in 2002 to participate in negotiations with Pyongyang and so is trusted by the Japanese public to handle the issue.

The more threatening North Korea becomes, the more Abe’s generally hawkish worldview — including his move toward militarization — makes sense to Japanese voters. As long as the issue is dominating headlines, Abe has an advantage.

Third and finally, the opposition is in a delicate position.

Abe’s center-right Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), historically dominant in Japanese politics, is facing a rebellion led by Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, who split off to form her own faction. Koike’s group did fairly well in local elections in the Tokyo area in July, but needs time to get ready to stand for a national election. Calling a new election now reduces her time to organize and coordinate effectively with the main opposition party, the center-left Democrats, in essence lessening the threat she poses to Abe.

Put those things together and you get a kind of perfect storm of circumstances that temporarily buoy Abe’s political fortunes — which is why he may think it makes sense to have a vote now rather than waiting till year.

The big question: does an Abe victory mean an end to pacifism?

Japanese soldiers during a military exercise.
(Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images)

Abe obviously does not want to admit that this new election is purely political. So the public line from Abe and the LDP is that the new election has been called to get the public’s backing for a new set of tax and social welfare policies.

Japan is about to hike its consumption tax rate from 8 to 10 percent; the current plan is to spend the new revenue on paying down the national debt. Abe wants to redirect that money toward tuition funding for low-income college students and a new government provided child care service for kids ages 3 to 5.

This pitch underscores how different the Japanese political spectrum is from the American one. Abe, who’s promising to use a tax hike to pay for social services, is the conservative in the race. This is not an election with huge ideological stakes, at least in the way that it’s understood in the US, so much as a referendum on Abe’s performance on issues like North Korea.

“[Voters] aren’t going to be thinking about the opposition, in my opinion, because it’s in such disarray,” says Amy Catalinac, a professor at New York University who studies Japanese politics.

This makes the election sound inconsequential, especially compared to dramatic elections in several Western democracies. But the stakes are anything but low: In fact, the foundation of Japan’s foreign policy may well be on the line.

Japan’s constitution was written right after the country’s crushing defeat in World War II with that war’s horrific consequences in mind. It is almost unique among constitutions in essentially prohibiting Japan from having official armed forces. The text of Article IX, the provision enacting this prohibition, is especially strong:

Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.

In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.

Yet in the years following the war, Japan faced a series of major security threats — most notably from China and North Korea. As a result, it started to build up its military capacities in 1954, calling the new branch “Self-Defense Forces” (SDF) to avoid constitutional problems. Today, Japan has the world’s eighth-largest defense budget; the SDF has more active-duty troops (227,000) than the French military (203,000).

This is a little bit difficult to square with Article 9’s prohibition on “land, sea, and air forces.” The country tries in various ways — by swearing off certain military technologies, like ground-to-ground missiles, that it deems “offensive” rather than “defensive” — but it’s a tough line to toe.

Abe wants to end the balancing act entirely. In a May 2017 speech, he promised to amend Article 9 to explicitly recognize the constitutionality of the SDF by 2020. A 2012 draft amendment written by the LDP went further, actively repealing the part of Article 9 that banned Japan from maintaining “war potential.” Experts on Japanese politics believe that Abe’s heart lies with the more radical proposals, rather than his more measured speech this year.

“[The 2017 speech] is a massive scaling back of what he would like to do,” says Catalinac, the NYU professor. “He did that because he just wants to be the person who revises the constitution, so he’s come up with something that can be palatable.”

Any kind of constitutional revision would be a huge deal. Japan’s constitution has never been amended; it is, according to University of Tokyo’s Kenneth Mori McElwain, “the oldest unamended constitution in the world today.”

Any revision would be important. Even one that even moderately shifts Japanese commitment to pacifism would mark a sea change in how Japan understands itself, as an ironclad commitment pacifism has been a central part of the country’s post World War II identity. It would also be seen by other regional powers, most notably China, as a security threat.

“Because of reasons of history, the international community, particularly Asian neighbors, have always paid close attention and been on alert to Japan’s military tendencies,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said after Abe’s May 2017 speech.

It’s tough to predict what the consequences would actually be — we’re still very far out from constitutional amendment — but it would clearly be a major shock to the region’s military and political system. Which is why this election is important.

The first step for any constitutional amendment to pass is a two-thirds majority vote in the Diet (Japan’s bicameral legislature) for the proposed amendment. Abe is gambling that the LDP and its allies in the conservative Buddhist Komeito party can, in the current political climate, win enough seats to cobble together the necessary two-thirds alongside with smattered support from opposition parties.

It’s not just about whether Abe wins. It’s also about how much he wins by.

Abe with UK Prime Minister Theresa May.
(Carl Court/Getty Images)

Abe is taking a huge gamble — one that could backfire tremendously.

The LDP is unlikely to lose its parliamentary majority, experts say. The LDP has huge structural advantages — including a long history of funneling pork-barrel money to important political constituencies — that mean it will probably win a majority again even if the campaign goes poorly.

But if the LDP/Komeito coalition loses a large portion of its current legislative majority — it currently controls 329 out of 475 in the Japan’s House of Representatives, more than the two-thirds needed to begin constitutional revision — then the election would still be a defeat for Abe.

The fate of UK Prime Minister Theresa May is an instructive story. Earlier this year, May called a snap election to enhance her slim majority before beginning Brexit talks with the EU, gambling that the incredible unpopularity of opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn would guarantee a victory. When the election was held in June, May’s Conservative Party actually lost seats — not enough to cost her control of government, but enough to substantially trim her support in parliament. That both made it much harder for her to pass new laws and weakened her hand in the Brexit negotiations.

If Abe pulls a May, constitutional revision would almost certainly be doomed. And he might even lose his job altogether.

The LDP requires its leader to run for reelection every three years, even if they’re the incumbent prime minister, opening up the floor to the Japanese equivalent of a primary challenge. The next LDP vote will take place next year; if Abe performs poorly in the 2017 general election, he may be doomed in the 2018 LDP vote.

So the key issue to look for in the next month isn’t whether Abe is on track to win a majority. It’s how big a majority he’s likely to win — and what that means for Japan and the rest of the world.

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