After having enjoyed high approval ratings for nearly his entire first year in office, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may have finally undercut his government’s support when he pushed a controversial state secrets law through the Japanese Diet over the objections of opposition parties and thousands of demonstrators. His approval ratings fell more than 10 points to below 50 per cent in multiple opinion polls, largely on the basis of public unease about the powers over public information that the law grants to the state.
However, the secrecy law is unlikely to be the last struggle between Mr Abe’s government and the Japanese public over the state’s security powers. One year into Mr Abe’s term, it is increasingly clear that his ambitions extend far beyond rejuvenating Japan’s economy: he wants to introduce sweeping change to political institutions to steel Japan for competition with China. By removing formal and informal checks on executive power, he hopes to have a freer hand to answer military threats and compete for influence in east Asia.
Simply put, Mr Abe is working to transform the Japanese premier from a legislative manager into a commander-in-chief, perched atop a more robust defence establishment. The most significant change in this regard is the creation of a US-style national security council (NSC), which from next month will centralise defence and foreign policy, and crisis management, in a single office with a staff of 50. Half the NSC staff will be uniformed personnel, thereby institutionalising close interaction between the prime minister and the Japanese Self-Defence Forces (JSDF). In fact, after just one year in office, Mr Abe has probably had more interaction with the JSDF than any of his predecessors: in addition to the two or three ceremonies regularly attended by earlier premiers, Mr Abe has been a regular visitor to JSDF bases and attended other JSDF functions in Tokyo. These prime-ministerial visits are clearly a conscious effort on his part to normalise the expanded commander-in-chief role.
An essential part of creating a more expansive Japanese defence establishment is shrouding its activities in secrecy. The recently passed law grants broad powers to government agencies to classify information – related to foreign and defence policy, counterintelligence, and counterterrorism – and mandates harsh penalties for leaks of classified information by bureaucrats, journalists and even members of parliament. Politicians are debating whether to create an institution to oversee the classification process, but the law still provides no place for parliamentary oversight.
Indeed, the Abe cabinet is trying to limit government accountability to the Diet more generally. It is currently pressing for revisions to parliamentary procedures that will limit the time the premier and cabinet ministers must spend in committee hearings, and will permit deputies to face questioning in place of their principals. The government has also resisted scheduling party leaders’ debates – Japan’s equivalent of Prime Minister’s Questions – and has held only two debates in the past year. Not only does the government want to limit the information available to MPs, it wants to limit the opportunities MPs have to question the government.
These changes stand in stark contrast to the traditions of Japan’s postwar democracy. Then, prime ministers were expected to consult – and often defer to – the wishes of their ruling parties and work with opposition parties on important pieces of legislation, even when the government had a majority. Japanese democracy thus ensured minority representation and balance between executive and legislature, albeit at the expense of decisive leadership.
Mr Abe is not the first prime minister who has sought to strengthen his ability to lead. However, he is prepared to go further than his predecessors by insulating the security establishment from oversight.
It is far from certain that he will succeed. The demonstrations in response to the secrecy law suggest that Japanese civil society is alert to the changes Mr Abe is seeking. The sharp drop in his approval ratings after the law’s passage also serves as a reminder that public opinion has played an important role in enforcing representative democracy by punishing governments perceived to be bullying the legislature or indifferent to the public’s wishes.
Mr Abe is fond of stressing the differences between Chinese authoritarianism and Japanese democracy. However, by weakening the executive’s accountability to the Japanese people, he risks undermining it. Perhaps a more assertive national security posture is a necessary response to China’s rise. But it should be for the Japanese people to decide whether competing with China is worth sacrificing its consensus-based democracy.
The writer is an analyst of Japanese politics at Teneo Intelligence, a political risk consultancy
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