Tokyo: As the results of the election for the Diet’s upper house rolled in on July 10th, Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, beamed. And why not? This was his third sweeping election victory since he and his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) returned to power in late 2012. It was won despite a sputtering economy and mounting doubts about how Mr Abe might fix it. And it moves him a big step closer to achieving a lifelong political ambition: unshackling Japan from the constitution imposed by America on a defeated country after the second world war.
With its junior partner, Komeito, the LDP won 70 out of the 121 seats up for grabs (half the upper house), admittedly on a low turnout. It nevertheless gives the ruling coalition firm control over the upper house. And, with support from like-minded parties and independents, Mr Abe can now claim a two-thirds majority in both upper and lower houses. That, in theory, gives him the long-coveted supermajorities to present constitutional changes to voters for approval by referendum.
First, though, Mr Abe must turn to boosting the economy. For all the trumpeted “Abenomics” of the past three years, including monetary and fiscal stimulus, output is forecast to grow at just 0.9% this year. Business confidence is flat, wages are stagnant and, though jobs are easy enough to find, consumption is sluggish. Not for the first time, Abenomics needs a reboot.
In the circumstances, it is remarkable that the opposition Democratic Party (DP) landed so few punches. It lost 15 seats. Post-Brexit turmoil in Europe may have spurred voters to cling to the stability that the LDP represents. The DP’s tactical agreement to co-ordinate fielding candidates with three disparate opposition parties unsettled many voters. Gambling all on its opposition to constitutional change, the DP had few economic proposals.
Having postponed a planned rise in the consumption tax, Mr Abe has instructed the finance ministry to draw up a “supplementary” budget to be passed in a special session of the Diet, expected in mid-September. The fresh stimulus may amount to as much as ¥10 trillion ($99 billion), or 2% of GDP—to be added to the current budget deficit and national debt of about 6% and 250% of GDP respectively. Mr Abe remains wedded to the old LDP recipe of construction projects and high-speed trains. Some of the money will be raised through investment bonds which, like nearly all the finance ministry’s debt issuance these days, will be bought by the central bank, in a tight fiscal-monetary tango. There is also talk of direct cash transfers to boost consumption among targeted groups, notably the young, the working poor, women and pensioners—a variant on “helicopter money” that seems destined to be called “drone money”.
A cabinet reshuffle is likely in August, and any Buggins’-turn appointments will be presented as bringing in new reformist blood. It is possible that the finance minister, Taro Aso, will want to go. But Mr Abe knows he has to do more than change faces and push yet more stimulus. One measure hinted at for the autumn Diet session is to reform the labour market. The prime minister, his advisers say, has come to believe that the economy’s problems are structural and to do with a shrinking population and rigid work practices. Japan has a two-tier labour market of cosseted permanent staff and less-protected employees on non-regular contracts—many of them young.
That said, the political will for labour reform, or indeed much structural change of any sort, has eluded Mr Abe to date. And the Diet session has other urgent business, including passing legislation to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade deal that has yet to be passed by America’s Congress and is opposed by both presidential candidates (though Hillary Clinton’s precise views are hard to pin down).
The prime minister sees economic strength and his nationalist agenda to restore Japanese power and prestige as one combined objective. But for all the opposition’s efforts, Mr Abe ducked the debate on constitutional change during the campaign—for good reason. A pre-election survey by NHK, the public broadcaster, found only 11% of respondents thought the constitution of greater concern to them than bread-and-butter issues.
With victory in the bag, he has now called for a debate on changing the constitution, saying it is his “duty” as president of his party. Setsu Kobayashi, a constitutional scholar at Keio University in Tokyo, says that on security and constitutional matters, Mr Abe has form in pushing ahead with unpopular measures, such as a controversial law that now allows Japan to take part in collective defence with allies.
An LDP draft for a revised constitution calls for, among other things, rewriting Article 9, which renounces war, to recast the country’s “self-defence forces” as regular armed forces. Getting that draft passed will require the “art of politics”, Mr Abe said this week. China may yet prove his best ally: it reacted furiously to an international ruling on July 12th dismissing its territorial claims in the South China Sea, while its navy and air force have increased their probing of the waters and air space around Japan. At present, though, the hurdles to constitutional change remain high. Natsuo Yamaguchi, Komeito’s leader, for one, has warned against tampering with the constitution’s pacifist clause.
Close advisers suggest that Mr Abe will not push for early change. Brexit, they say, has come as a stark reminder to him of how, without laying the groundwork, a referendum can divide a country and produce an unexpected and “wrong” outcome. Besides, no consensus exists on what the changes should be. While some would-be amenders (including in the DP) care about Article 9, others are more concerned with enshrining human rights or simply revamping the procedures for amending the constitution. Still others talk of a new amendment giving the prime minister and self-defence forces emergency powers after a natural disaster.
So no immediate drive for constitutional reform, perhaps. All the more reason, then, to judge Mr Abe by his promise to transform the economy.