The leaders of Japan’s major political parties faced off Tuesday, one day before the start of campaigning for the July 10 upper house election, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pushing his economic record and opposition parties warning voters not to get distracted from the issue of constitutional reform.
Much of the debate at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo focused on whether Japan’s economy under the “Abenomics” policy mix is “still halfway along the road,” as claimed by Abe, or “stuck at a fork in the road,” as Democratic Party leader Katsuya Okada alleged.
Abe, Okada and the heads of seven other parties fought over the impact of the premier’s further deferral of an already delayed hike of the country’s consumption tax, a decision that has removed an anticipated source of tax revenue in the coming years.
“The economy has stalled and must be turned around,” Okada said.
The Democratic Party, Japanese Communist Party and others have united behind single candidates in all 32 contested single-member electoral districts in the upper house race against the ruling bloc composed of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party and junior coalition partner Komeito.
Half of the house’s 242 seats are up for grabs every three years, resulting in staggered six-year terms.
Having broken his previous promise not to again postpone the tax hike, Abe has said the ruling bloc is aiming to win at least half the contested seats—a higher hurdle than merely retaining its majority in the house—to serve as a public mandate for the continuation of Abenomics.
Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi pledged to keep a steady hand on economic policy and tweak promised social security reforms to achieve as much as possible even with the delay in the sales tax increase.
“We want to spread a sense of hope to those people the benefits of Abenomics haven’t reached yet,” Yamaguchi said.
But some in the opposition maintain Abe is seeking to fill the chamber with lawmakers amenable to amending Japan’s Constitution. A two-thirds majority across both Diet houses is required in order to call a national referendum on altering the war-renouncing document.
While acknowledging reform of the Constitution has always been an LDP goal, Abe continued to double down on economic and fiscal policy issues.
A moderator became increasingly exasperated as the premier kept pushing the economy, at one point interrupting him to ask, “What else have you got?”
The opposition also refused to let go of national security issues, with the JCP’s Kazuo Shii saying Abe’s envisioned defense reforms will turn the Japan-U.S. security alliance into “an alliance of blood.”
Okada and Shii called for the scrapping of controversial security legislation expanding the overseas role of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces and for a ground-up review of the security alliance.
Asked to explain the Abe Cabinet’s robust recent approval ratings, Okada claimed the media are neglecting to fully inform the Japanese people of the government’s failings.
Even though each candidate was given one minute to respond to a question, Abe was “allowed to talk on and on—it’s self-promotion,” Okada said.
The leaders of Initiatives from Osaka, the Social Democratic Party, People’s Life Party, New Renaissance Party and the Party for Japanese Kokoro also took part in the debate, largely focusing on securing revenue sources for social security and maintaining pacifism under the Constitution.