Abe’s Assassination and Implications for Constitutional Revision

Dr. Daniel M. Smith
Gerald L. Curtis Visiting Associate Professor of Modern Japanese Politics and Foreign Policy, Columbia University

Publications Abe’s Assassination and Implications for Constitutional Revision

People pray at a site outside of Yamato-Saidaiji Station where Japan’s former prime minister Shinzo Abe was shot during an election campaign on July 08, 2022 in Nara, Japan. Former Prime Minister Abe has been pronounced dead after collapsing when shots were heard while he was campaigning at a rally. A suspect was apprehended and taken into custody, as Abe was rushed to a hospital via helicopter. (Photo by Yuichi Yamazaki/Getty Images)

The world is still in shock following the assassination on Friday, July 8, of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a speech in Nara to support a Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) candidate during the election campaign for the House of Councillors, the upper chamber of Japan’s Diet.

Abe was a towering figure in Japanese politics, as the longest serving prime minister (in office for a combined period of nearly nine years before stepping down in 2020), and the leader of the largest intraparty faction in the LDP (the Seiwa Seisaku Kenkyukai, which has over 90 members). His death leaves uncertainty about the future distribution of power within the LDP and raises questions about the prospects of constitutional revision––Abe’s long-time policy goal, which he failed to achieve during his lifetime.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida denounced the violent act on July 8 and pledged that it would not interfere with “a free and fair election that is the basis of democracy.”[1] The upper chamber’s election proceeded as scheduled on Sunday, July 10, and the LDP and its coalition partner, Komeito, won a combined 76 seats of the 125 seats up for election.[2]

Pro-constitutional revision parties in the chamber––also including Nippon Ishin no Kai (Ishin) and the Democratic Party for the People (DPP)––now control the two-thirds majority necessary to pass an amendment bill, together with the two-thirds pro-constitutional revision majority in the House of Representatives, the lower chamber. However, any amendment passed through the Diet also would need to be approved by a majority of voters in a national referendum.

On Monday, July 11, Kishida told reporters that he is resolved to push forward Abe’s policy goals, including constitutional revision.[3] But Abe’s death poses some political uncertainty for Kishida in the short term since the support of Abe’s faction matters for the security of Kishida’s position as LDP party leader and prime minister. It is still unclear who will lead Abe’s faction next, with a collective “caretaker” leadership composed of several members––including veterans such as Hakubun Shimomura and Ryu Shionoya––being considered in the meantime.[4]

How might Abe’s death and the subsequent victory of pro-revision parties in the House of Councillors affect the prospects for constitutional revision?

Pro-constitutional Revision Diet Members Now Hold the Power

Members of the House of Councillors serve staggered, six-year terms, with half up for election every three years.[5] The electoral system is a mixed-member system in which voters cast two votes: one for a candidate in one of 45 district races; one for either a candidate or party in a nationwide district with open-list proportional representation (PR) rules. In total, 125 seats were up for grabs (due to one vacancy), with 123 seats continuing, for a total of 248 seats in the chamber.

In the July 10 election, the LDP won 63 seats––45 in district races and 18 in the PR tier. Combined with the 56 seats it held that were not up for election, the party now holds 119 seats (a net gain of 8 seats), which is 48 percent of the chamber. Komeito won 13 seats to bring its total in the chamber to 27 seats (a net loss of one seat). Combined, the ruling coalition thus holds 59 percent of the seats, which is not enough to pass a constitutional revision on its own.

However, the pro-constitutional revision opposition parties and independents also gained seats. The 12 seats (21 total) of Ishin and five seats (10 total) of DPP, plus others, put the pro-constitutional revision parties at 179 seats overall (72 percent of the chamber).[6] This means that pro-revision Diet members now have the numerical strength in both chambers to pass a constitutional revision bill.

Obstacles and Uncertainty Remain

Pro-constitutional revision parties have exceeded the two-thirds threshold in both chambers before, but disagreement over the details of revision plans within the ruling coalition (Komeito is less eager for major changes than the LDP), and uncertainty about whether public support in a referendum would be forthcoming, kept revision off the table. The situation might be different now, but it is too early to tell.

Over the past decade, support among voters for constitutional revision usually has fallen short of 50 percent.[7] The pro-constitutional revision camp might try to garner public sympathy for realizing Abe’s dream of revision, and opposition voices might be placed in the uncomfortable position of pushing back without appearing insensitive to the tragedy of Abe’s death. A small shift in attitudes or turnout (or who turns out) could push support for a constitutional amendment over the majority line in a referendum.

However, it is not entirely clear how public opinion over constitutional revision might change in response to Abe’s assassination. The public is still learning details about the motivations of Abe’s assassin, including a connection to the Unification Church––which exposes complicated and controversial questions about the relationship between religious groups and the LDP.[8] This background story may consume public attention and prevent pro-constitutional revision Diet members from moving quickly on their goals. The assassin’s prior connection to the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Forces (JMSDF) might also complicate the discourse regarding the revision of Article 9, the so-called “Peace Clause” of Japan’s Constitution.

It is also unclear how hard Kishida intends to push for constitutional revision as a legislative priority. Compared to Abe, Kishida is less zealous about constitutional revision, and has prioritized his economic policies (“new capitalism”) in the first year of his administration. Constitutional revision might not be the issue on which he wishes to expend his limited political capital.

However, Kishida cannot remain in power with only the support of his own small faction (Kochikai), which has just over 40 members. He needs to keep the rest of the LDP happy, as well. With the current uncertainty about the future of Abe’s faction (Seiwa Seisaku Kenkyukai), Kishida will face pressure to appeal to its members and keep them from upsetting the delicate balance of power in the LDP that his continued premiership depends on. His public comments about resolving to achieve Abe’s policy priorities may simply be rhetoric in pursuit of maintaining intraparty unity.

Initial Interpretations

My own expectation is that any attempt to move forward on constitutional revision will get bogged down in negotiations and debates between political parties over which exact changes to propose, since even the LDP and Komeito are not yet in full agreement despite years of governing together in coalition. Meanwhile, the window of opportunity will become narrower as time goes on.

If the pro-constitutional revision parties want to succeed in passing an amendment, they should gain agreement quickly on a simple and moderate proposal––one that, for example, brings the formal constitutional status of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) up to speed with current legal interpretation without making broader changes to the status quo. Moreover, given that Kishida does not share Abe’s polarizing reputation for nationalism and historical revisionism, he may be a more palatable and reassuring prime minister to deliver such a proposal.[9]

Ultimately, if constitutional revision does become a reality, it may be a blessing to the anemic and fragmented opposition parties on the left, which have once again failed to raise a serious challenge to the LDP. The domestic policies of the Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP)––such as opposition to consumption tax increases, opposition to nuclear power, and support for same-sex marriage and separate surnames for married couples––are more popular with voters than the policies proposed by the LDP. However, the LDP enjoys a “credibility” advantage that is based, in part, on its ownership of national security issues.

In the longer run, the realization of constitutional revision could shake up the political party system in ways that lead to more competitive elections and greater responsiveness to voters’ domestic policy preferences.

[1] Motoko Rich et al., “Shinzo Abe Is Assassinated With a Handmade Gun, Shocking a Nation,” The New York Times, July 8, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/07/08/world/asia/shinzo-abe-assassin-handmade-gun.html.

[2] “参院選2022 開票速報 (House of Councillors election 2022 ballot counting bulletin),” Yomiuri Shimbun, July 11, 2022, https://www.yomiuri.co.jp/election/sangiin/; “参議院議員通常選挙(House of Councillors general election),” Asahi Shimbun, July 10, 2022, https://www.asahi.com/senkyo/saninsen/.

[3] “Kishida set to work on Abe’s priority goals, including amending Constitution,” NHK World-Japan, July 11, 2022, https://www3.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/en/news/20220711_16/.

[4] “衆目一致する後継者いない安倍派、幹部会合で結束を確認 (Abe faction without a consensus successor confirms unity at executive meeting),” Yomiuri Shimbun, July 11, 2022, https://www.yomiuri.co.jp/politics/20220711-OYT1T50293/; Gaku Shimada, “Abe’s house of cards: Death leaves largest party faction in limbo,” Nikkei Asia, July 14, 2022, https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/Shinzo-Abe/Abe-s-house-of-cards-Death-leaves-largest-party-faction-in-limbo.

[5] Dr. Satohiro Akimoto, “Tailwinds Favorable for Kishida and LDP in July’s Upper House Election,” Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA, July 1, 2022, https://spfusa.org/publications/tailwinds-favorable-for-kishida-and-ldp/.

[6] Will Fee and Kanako Takahara, “Constitutional revision inches closer in Japan, but actual change still far off,” The Japan Times, July 11, 2022, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2022/07/11/national/politics-diplomacy/constitutional-revision-prospects/.

[7] “Constitutional Change in Japan: Public Attitudes on Revision,” Council on Foreign Relations, n.d., Accessed July 11, 2022, https://www.cfr.org/japan-constitution/public-attitudes-on-revision.

[8] Kana Inagaki et al., “Killing of Shinzo Abe shines spotlight on politicians’ links with Moonies,” The Financial Times, July 11, 2022, https://www.ft.com/content/a31f0f6d-39c9-4990-9081-057f773d56d4.

[9] Kenneth M. McElwain, Shusei Eshima, and Christian G. Winkler, “The Proposer or the Proposal? An Experimental Analysis of Constitutional Beliefs,” Cambridge University Press, March 25, 2021, first published by Japanese Journal of Political Science 22, no.1 (March 2021): 15-39, https://doi.org/10.1017/S1468109921000025.

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