TOKYO – Days after former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s assassination, his party vowed to use its victory in a parliamentary election to achieve his unfinished goals, including strengthening the military and revising the country’s pacifist, postwar constitution.
While the comfortable majority secured Sunday by the governing Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner Komeito could allow Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to rule uninterrupted until a scheduled election in 2025, the loss of Abe also opened up a period of uncertainly for his party. The promised constitutional amendment, for one, faced an uphill battle.
In a country where gun crime is vanishingly rare, Abe's shooting shook the nation, and Japanese flocked to a Buddhist temple Monday to mourn their former leader, while police looked into a possible motive.
Kishida, meanwhile, welcomed his party's victory but also acknowledged that it was entering a new era without the towering politician, who even after resigning as prime minister in 2020 remained a force in the party and national politics.
“Because we've lost a great leader, undeniably we could be affected in many ways," Kishida said. “Our party must unite as we face difficult issues."
Experts said Abe, a kingmaker and head of the largest wing in the party, had no clear successor and his absence could trigger a power struggle among members of that faction.
“The absence of Mr. Abe and his grip on power in the party could give Mr. Kishida more of a free hand to take his own initiative,” said Koichi Nakano, a professor of international politics at Tokyo-based Sophia University. Kishida has enjoyed relatively high approval ratings for his perceived effort to listen to the people. That suggested support could be growing for his more moderate stance — and lessening for Abe's more conservative approach, Nakano said.
But he added any significant change in direction would be hard for Kishida and would take time. Much of Japan's current diplomatic and security policies, such as the stronger Japan-U.S. alliance and pushing for a free and open Asia-Pacific region as a counter to China's rise, were set by Abe and remained unchanged, he said.
Kishida said the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and rising prices would be his priorities. But he also vowed to push for reinforcing Japan’s national security and amending the constitution, which only allows the country's military to act in self-defense.
Abe, along with some of the country's ultraconservatives, considered the document written by the U.S. in the wake of World War II a humiliation and have long sought to give a greater international role to the country's military, called the Self Defense Force. But many in the public are more supportive of the document and see addressing the pandemic and the soaring cost of food, fuel and childcare as more pressing.
“We will inherit his will and tackle the issues he had to leave unachieved,” Kishida said.
To propose a constitutional amendment, both houses of parliament need to support it by a two-thirds majority. Sunday’s vote gave the LDP-led coalition and two opposition parties open to a charter revision that margin in the upper chamber of parliament.
Experts suggested Abe's assassination may have garnered his party some sympathy votes, and the governing coalition alone now has 146 of the house's 248 seats. All four parties together control 179. That group of four parties also has the necessary seats in the more powerful lower house.
Still, it’s far from clear sailing: Komeito, the centrist party that forms part of the governing coalition, says changing the article in the constitution that puts constraints on the military is unnecessary. In addition, any amendment would need to secure a majority of support in a national referendum to pass.
Abe, who stepped down as prime minister two years ago, citing health reasons, said at the time he regretted leaving many of his goals unfinished, including revising the constitution.
On Monday evening, a wake was held for Abe at a Buddhist temple in downtown Tokyo where Kishida and top former and current political leaders, as well as ordinary mourners, paid tribute. Some broke down in tears.
A funeral is planned at the temple Tuesday by his family. The government is expected to hold a separate memorial service at a later date.
Earlier in the day, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Kishida to offer condolences and deliver a letter from President Joe Biden to Abe’s family.
“We simply want them to know that we deeply feel the loss on the personal level as well,” Blinken told Kishida. “Mostly I’m here because the United States and Japan are more than allies — we are friends.”
Also Monday, Taiwanese Vice President Lai Ching-Te paid his respects at Abe's Tokyo residence. Lai in his Facebook called Abe “a good friend who loves and supports Taiwan.” Abe was known as a staunch Taiwan supporter.
Japan's longest-serving political leader, Abe was the grandson of another prime minister and became the country's youngest leader in 2006, at age 52. That stint in office abruptly ended a year later, also because of his health.
He returned to the premiership in 2012, vowing to revitalize the nation and get its economy out of its deflationary doldrums with his “Abenomics” formula, which combines fiscal stimulus, monetary easing and structural reforms. He won six national elections and built a rock-solid grip on power.
On Sunday, the suspect accused of his murder was transferred to a local prosecutors’ office for further investigation. They can detain him for up to three weeks while deciding whether to formally press charges.
Police said the suspect, Tetsuya Yamagami, told investigators he acted because of Abe’s rumored connection to an organization that he resented. Some Japanese media identified the group as South Korea’s Unification Church, and reported that the suspect's mother donated large amounts of money to the church. They suggested that the donations and her subsequent bankruptcy were a possible motive.
The Japan branch of the church acknowledged Monday that the suspect's mother was a member, but denied that it demanded large donations from anyone.
Tomihiro Tanaka, head of the church, declined comment on the specifics of donations, saying a police investigation was ongoing. Speaking in generalities, he confirmed some people had made generous donations, but stressed none were forced.
Tanaka said Abe was not a member though he supported its global peace movement.