Japan's TPP 'Shock'

The Abe government's decision to participate in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations on 15 March was a shock to Japan's domestic farm lobby led by the Japan Agriculture organization (JA).

Even for the Abe government, the timing of the decision was more accidental than the result of careful planning. The prime minister was initially reluctant to act precipitously on the TPP, preferring to wait until after the July upper house election.

Last December, he reportedly told his close political associates, 'The TPP is a difficult problem. JA is opposed too, we can't touch it until the upper house election'. However, the TPP negotiations were making quicker progress than anticipated, which flustered the government.

Another decisive factor was the delay in the prime minister's visit to the United States. He had initially planned the visit for January before the Diet session began. However, because President Obama could not accommodate this timing in his schedule, Abe ended up going in February. One of the prime minister's secretaries recounted, 'if the Japan–US summit meeting had been held in January, he could have got away with just saying "Hi, how is it going?" but the late February visit created the feeling that there had to be some sort of outcome'. That led to the joint statement at the summit, which prompted Prime Minister Abe's announcement on Japan's participation in the TPP negotiations.

Abe thus took a political gamble on the TPP that looks like paying off, using his sky-high approval ratings to carry his administration over the line. He has since put in place the kind of coordination structures on TPP policy and negotiations that will facilitate concessions in areas such as agriculture. JA was unable to stop Abe's TPP decision, which represents a major defeat for the organization, despite a last-minute, high-gear campaign and expressions of resolve to 'fight on to the very end in order to protect Japan's food, livelihood and lives'. A so-called 'emergency assembly' three days before the government's announcement brought together 4000 participants from across the nation, including members of allied groups, such as forestry and fisheries cooperatives and consumer organizations.

Not only is JA trying to construct a broad national coalition of anti-TPP groups, it is also building an ideological case against the TPP, which it depicts as being driven by economic rationalism and selfish claims based on market fundamentalism. JA also cites the threat to Japanese tradition, culture and history - the last refuge of protectionists.

Given that there will be no let-up in JA's anti-TPP campaign, how high will the political cost be for Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)? Will JA retaliate in the upper house election? Winning a majority of seats in this election will be crucial to stabilizing the LDP–Komeito coalition. The Hokkaido branch of JA has already defected from the LDP, and there is a widespread feeling in the organization that it has been betrayed by the government. JA's national political arm, Zenkoku Noseiren, as well as its prefectural organizations, will undoubtedly make opposition to the TPP a condition for their support in the election, which may divide the LDP further, just as it did the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in the last election. Certainly, LDP candidates in the single-member prefectural constituencies - the most crucial for the party to win and where many farms are located - respect JA's negative voting power, generated by its thousands of farmer and staff members.

Rural and regional areas will also continue to exercise disproportionate electoral power because any electoral reforms to rectify the imbalance in vote values across constituencies in both houses will continue to fall well short of equality of representation. Despite court verdicts, no electoral reform plans have full voter equality as their primary goal. Moreover, party interest always trumps the principle of voter equality. Each party seeks to secure its own electoral advantage from proposed changes, thus preventing the emergence of any clear consensus on reform.

On the other hand, the LDP is well positioned to win the election for other reasons. Last December's lower house election revealed that support for the LDP is strong across all types of constituencies, not just in rural and semi-rural districts, suggesting that the LDP now has a much broader and more even voting base. With public support for the TPP exceeding 60 per cent, and even higher levels of support for the Abe administration, the prime minister and the LDP have little to fear from an anti-TPP campaign from JA and its allies. Nor does it have anything to fear from the opposition parties on the TPP issue, which leaves JA and the farmers with nowhere to go. The most popular opposition parties - the Japan Restoration Party and Your Party - are both strongly pro-TPP. The DPJ lacks credibility on the issue given previous internal divisions, with its biggest concern surviving beyond the election. It rightly fears annihilation at the polls after a dismal electoral showing last December. Parties opposing the TPP - Ichiro Ozawa's People's Life Party, the Japan Communist Party, Social Democratic Party and Green Wind Party - remain electorally weak, and the TPP will provide them with little tail wind.

Finally, Abe is attempting to reassure both his own party members and farmers by promising to protect food and agriculture in TPP negotiations. In the meantime, indiscriminate pork barrel income and agricultural construction subsidies to farmers will soften any electoral retaliation on the TPP issue. Over the longer term, the Abe administration's plan for agricultural reform includes abolishing the rice acreage reduction policy (gentan), allowing private stock companies to acquire farmland, and separating JA's credit and mutual insurance businesses. When stacked up against these policies, the TPP may be the least of JA's worries.

(Aurelia George Mulgan is Professor at the University of New South Wales, Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra. This was written for the East Asia Forum.)