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Abe’s Gamble: Snap Election in Japan

“I need to hear the voice of the people,” said Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. “I will step down if we fail to keep our majority because that would mean our Abenomics is rejected.” And with that feeble excuse he announced that he was calling an election two years earlier than necessary, on 14 December.

“Abenomics”, the prime minister’s  drastic strategy for kick-starting Japan out of twenty years of deflation and economic stagnation, has not actually been rejected by the public, but it is failing nevertheless. After an initial burst of growth last year, Japan has fallen into a recession despite the trillions of yen that the central bank has pumped into the economy.

Japanese voters would love to see “Abenomics” succeed. It’s no fun living in a no-growth economy, and Abe’s plan was the first they had seen in a long time that had even a chance of turning that around. But two years in the kick-start has stalled, and Abe’s public approval rating recently fell below 50 percent for the first time. Maybe he’s just going for another four years now because he fears that later the prospects will be even worse.

To be fair to the prime minister, “Abenomics” didn’t actually cause the recession. The problem was that Abe raised the sales tax from 5 percent to 8 percent last April, in obedience to a law passed by the previous government. Unfortunately, Japanese consumers responded by cutting their spending, especially on big-ticket items – and so the economy tumbled into recession.

Abe has learned his lesson, and he is now promising that the scheduled second rise in the sales tax next year, from 8 percent to 10 percent, will be postponed until 2017 if he wins the election. In fact, he is portraying the election as a referendum on whether the public wants him to kill the next tax rise – as if they were likely to demand that he go ahead with it.

If he can keep the debate centred on the economy, Abe should cruise to an easy victory, for the opposition parties are divided and disorganised and have no plausible alternative solution. However, if the focus shifts to Abe’s plans to restart the country’s nuclear power stations and remove the pacifist elements from the Japanese constitution, the election’s outcome will get much harder to predict.

On the nuclear issue, as on the sales tax, Abe is doing the sensible thing. Nuclear power used to provide 30 percent of Japan’s electrical power, and the shutdown of all the country’s reactors has compelled it to spend huge amounts of money on imported energy.

It’s now high time to turn the nuclear reactors on again. But the Japanese public, post-Fukushima, has an acute nuclear allergy, and the opposition to re-starting the reactors is large, vocal, and well-organised. If that becomes a central election issue, Abe will lose a lot of votes.

And then there’s the constitutional question. Abe has long detested the constitution, written by Americans during the post-1945 occupation, that forbids Japan to send military forces abroad. He says he wants to rewrite it to allow Japan to send its troops to the aid of allies who are under attack. His critics see it as the entering wedge for a full-scale remilitarisation of the country.

“The global situation surrounding Japan is getting ever more difficult,” Abe said in a televised press conference last summer, in an attempt to justify his proposed constitutional changes. He was really talking about the growing tension and even hostility between Tokyo and Beijing, of course, and China’s Xinhua news agency replied with an editorial that verged on the hysterical.

Abe is “leading his country on a dangerous path” by “gutting the constitution,” Xinhua wrote. “No matter how Abe glosses over it, he is dallying with the spectre of war.” And it really doesn’t help that some of Abe’s hard-right friends and political associates dabble in anti-Chinese invective and deny Japan’s war crimes before and during the Second World War.

There are a great many people in Japan who find this attempt to change the constitution frightening. Nobody knows exactly how many (it depends on how the opinion pollsters pose the question), but it may well be a majority. So Abe really needs to keep this from becoming the dominant issue in the election.

The fact that it will be a relatively short campaign helps Abe, but if these two issues catch fire he will be in serious difficulty. It’s unlikely that his Liberal Democratic Party, in power for 53 of the past 59 years, will actually lose control of the Lower House of the Diet, but it could lose enough seats to force him to drop his nuclear and constitutional projects.

And there is an outside chance that he could actually lose the election.
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Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“The global…War”)

Nukes in the Cupboard

3 October 2012

Nukes in the Cupboard

by Gwynne Dyer

The major powers have all had their nuclear weapons on permanent alert, ready to launch in minutes or hours, for the past forty years. Changes in the level of political risk, even the end of the Cold War, have had little or no effect on that. But wouldn’t it be safer and cheaper to “simply put (the nuclear deterrent) away in a cupboard and keep it as a contingency in case there were ever to be a deterioration in the global security picture”?

In terms of orthodox strategic thinking, that is heresy. But the man who made that heretical suggestion was Sir Nick Harvey, until last month the defence minister in charge of the British government’s nuclear capability review.

Replaced in the recent cabinet reshuffle, Harvey is now free to speak his mind. At last week’s Liberal Democratic Party conference, he did precisely that, saying that he “wanted his legacy to be bringing the United Kingdom down the nuclear ladder” – although, he admitted, “we might struggle to persuade the British public to get off the ladder altogether.”

It isn’t just the British public that loves its nukes. The American, Russian and French publics would be equally reluctant to give up their nuclear deterrent forces, even though they face no plausible threat of a nuclear war. (The Chinese public isn’t really paying attention yet.) But maybe you could at least persuade the great powers to put the damned things away, and Britain would be a good place to start.

The orthodoxy still says that every self-respecting great power must have its nuclear weapons on permanent alert, in order to deter a surprise attack by some other nuclear power. Nuclear “Pearl Harbours” allegedly lie in wait around every corner. But, as Harvey told The Guardian newspaper, “If you can just break yourself out of that frankly almost lunatic mindset for a second, all sorts of alternatives start to look possible, indeed credible.”

What drove Harvey into this bold assertion was the fact that Britain can no longer afford its nuclear deterrent. It will have to replace its current fleet of four Trident II ballistic-missile submarines by 2028, and the estimated cost is $20-$30 billion. That’s less than two weeks’ worth of American military spending, but for Britain it would mean cutting deeply into every other area of the defence budget.

The British army is “driving around in vehicles which are literally about to fall to pieces,” he said. The navy needs a new fleet of frigates, and the air force is committed to buying the joint strike fighter. They can’t have it all, and some senior officers are asking: “Is the opportunity cost of having a new generation of nuclear weapons too high, in terms of what it would prevent us doing on other fronts.”

So what are the alternatives to eternal hair-trigger readiness for an attack nobody really expects to come? You could just get rid of all your nuclear weapons, of course, and you’d probably be just as safe as you are now. But if you can’t get your head around the idea of nuclear nakedness, you could at least store your magical cloak in the closet, safely out of the reach of foolish children.

What Harvey was actually proposing was that Britain should get rid of its missile-firing submarines when they get too old, and rely on a few cruise missiles with nuclear warheads to keep everybody else honest. Store them somewhere safe, and don’t even take them out unless the international situation has got dramatically worse.

In fact, why not do that right now? Those “boomers” – nuclear-powered submarines carrying long-range ballistic missiles with multiple nuclear warheads – were really designed for “retaliation from the grave” if all the owner’s cities, military bases, ports and hamburger stands were destroyed in a massive surprise nuclear attack. Does anybody expect such a thing in the current era? Well, then…

And the best thing about putting the nukes in the cupboard is that you eliminate the risk of ugly accidents. In 2009 two boomers, one British and the other French, actually collided underwater. Even at a time unprecedented in world history, when no great power fears attack by any other, it would have been a frightening event if those two submarines had been American and Chinese.

So put the toys away, boys. Don’t expect the Israelis, the Indians and the Pakistanis to follow suit, because they live in parts of the world where full-scale war with a powerful enemy is still a possibility. But together they have only about 500 nuclear weapons; the five nuclear-armed great powers have around 11,000.

Somebody has to start, and Britain is the likeliest candidate of the five. Sir Nick Harvey lost his job in the cabinet reshuffle, but the “nuclear capability review” is still underway.

Even Britain’s generals think that another generation of fully deployed missile-firing submarines would deprive them of most of the other new weapons they want, so the issue will stay on the table. Dumping the boomers and locking the remaining nuclear warheads in the cupboard would be a useful halfway house on the way to getting rid of them entirely.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“What…fronts”)

 

The British Election

7 May 2010

The British Election

By Gwynne Dyer

The great unanswered question of British politics is why would anybody want to win an election in the United Kingdom this year?

The national budget is heading for a 12 per cent deficit. The country is staggering under a massive load of debt and the bond sharks are circling. The future for years to come will be a grim tale of unending tax rises and cuts to vital services like health and education.

Any party that forms a government under these circumstances and does what is needed to save the economy will become massively unpopular, and will ultimately be rewarded with a long period in the electoral wilderness.

But politicians just don’t know how to walk away: it’s not in their genes. So there is fierce competition for this poisoned chalice.

To make matters worse, the election on May 6 produced a result that tipped the major parties into a ruthless scramble for power.

The Conservative Party ended up with 50 more members of parliament than the Labour Party, but neither of the major parties got enough seats to form a majority government. So both of them let the third-place Liberal Democratic Party know they were open to a coalition.

In Germany or Israel or India, this would barely be cause for comment: that’s how politics normally works in those bailiwicks.

In Britain, where coalitions are seen as a nasty foreign habit, it has caused a virtual meltdown in the commentariat.

The Lib Dems’ price for agreeing to a coalition – with anybody – is wholesale reform of the voting system. They do have a point, for the old-fashioned, winner-takes-all system still used in Britain produces remarkably skewed results.

In the last election, in 2005, Labour got only 35 per cent of the votes cast, but 55 per cent of the seats. The second-place Conservatives got 32 per cent of the vote and only 30 per cent of the seats.

The Liberal Democrats got 22 per cent of the vote and only 10 per cent of the seats.

Ever since the Lib Dems (or rather their ancestors, the Liberals) ceased to be one of the two major parties and fell to third place a century ago, that has been their fate. It was almost impossible to escape from that fate because voters came to feel a vote for the third-place party was a wasted vote – and that became a self-fulfilling policy.

So the flagship Lib Dem policy is electoral reform. They want proportional representation.

This is not a battle-cry that makes the heart pump faster, even among the party faithful, and to the non-Lib Dem masses it is quite meaningless.

The only way it could ever happen is if the two major parties should both fall short of a majority and need a coalition with the Lib Dems in order to govern. Like now.

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg’s price for entering into a coalition with either the Conservatives or Labour is an ironclad commitment from the prospective partner to act on electoral reform promptly.

Whether that would involve just legislation or also a referendum remains to be seen, but probably both – and Clegg would want it to happen fast, in case there is another election in the near future, as often happens with coalition governments.

Clegg is talking to Conservative leader David Cameron first, since his party got the largest number of seats and votes, but Cameron’s best offer is “an all-party committee of inquiry on political and electoral reform.” He cannot offer more, because his own party won’t let him.

This does not make a lot of sense politically, since Labour, not the Conservatives, is the greatest beneficiary of the current voting system. But there I go again, expecting rational self-interest to determine political choices. The real reason the rank and file of the Conservative Party hate the idea of change – any kind of change – is because they are conservative.

So it may be that the Liberal Democratic leader will soon move on and start talking to Labour leader Gordon Brown (who remains prime minister until he resigns or parliament meets again and votes him out).

Brown has already said he would meet Clegg’s demands on electoral reform, and it is not inconceivable that there could be a Labour-Lib Dem coalition in office before we are all much older.

Something of the sort had better happen before we are much older, because the markets will not wait. They will want to be reassured quite soon that the grown-ups are in charge in Britain, or it will get increasingly difficult and expensive for Britain to borrow money to service its debts.

It is not in the same dire financial straits as Greece, or even Spain and Portugal, but the markets do not make fine distinctions when they panic.

A month ago it was assumed the British Conservatives were cruising smoothly towards victory.

It’s still not clear what blew them so far off course, but they (and all the other British parties) are now in uncharted waters.

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Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.