Forget the political parties that are contesting Japan’s parliamentary election this weekend. The real choice for Japanese voters as they cast ballots is between cynicism and indifference. Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has called a snap election less than halfway through the parliament’s term – but not because his parliamentary majority is at risk and voters need to give him and his party a new mandate. Just the opposite: Abe has called an election to exploit a disorganized opposition and protect his own back. This is breath-taking opportunism. Abe will get his win, but his and his party’s standing will suffer in the process.
The foundation of Abe’s return to power – he served as prime minister for an uninspiring year in 2006-7 – was the rejuvenation of Japan’s economy. “Abenomics,” his three-part program of monetary easing, fiscal stimulus and structural reform, was intended to end two-plus decades of economic stagnation. It worked – for a time. A quick growth spurt accompanied his first year in office but that tapered off when the consumption tax was increased in April 2014 (an agreement reached by the previous government and the LDP in 2012). A devalued yen – the currency has fallen to its lowest point since 2007 as a result of historic monetary easing – has ballooned corporate balance sheets, but it has increased prices for consumers and companies haven’t shared those profits with workers. Worse, the economy is technically in recession after two successive quarters of negative growth.
Not surprisingly, voters have grown disenchanted with the Abe government and that disaffection is evident in the Cabinet’s plummeting approval ratings. A poll taken just before Abe called the snap election showed his support rate at 44 percent, while disapproval had jumped 4 percentage points in a month to 38 percent. Those numbers might seem high for many leaders, but they are a marked turn-around from the 76 percent approval rating his Cabinet received in April 2013 as Abenomics first began to show results.
Confronted by those falling numbers, Abe says that he called the election to get a mandate for continued reform. That would be a credible statement if he had made real efforts at reform, the third prong of his economic program. In fact, however, the government has been long on talk and short on action when it comes to that “third arrow.” It isn’t clear if the problem is a lack of commitment on Abe’s part – some of the proposals, such as the call for agricultural trade liberalization clash with his idealized vision of Japan, in which picture postcard images of small rice plots are prominent – or political opposition from long-protected industries. Either way, the real opposition to Abe is from his own party, not from across the aisle.
In that context, calling a snap election makes no sense, unless the real reason for the ballot is to exploit the weakness of the opposition. And, sure enough, recent opinion polls show the LDP increasing its representation in parliament, a remarkable feat for a government losing popularity. The explanation is twofold. First, the opposition remains fractured and unpopular. The leading opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan, was an appalling failure during its three years in office from 2009-2012. Today, it barely crosses into double digits. The real challenger to the LDP, which typically claims about 37 percent of respondents, is the “undecided/don’t know” cohort, which polls from 33-45 percent. Thus, the choice is really between the LDP and staying home instead of voting.
Abe wins either way, and that is because of the mechanics of the Japanese electoral system, which tolerates large vote disparities (even though the Supreme Court has ruled them illegal and rewards large parties. Analyst Michael Cucek notes that the LDP won 227 district races in 2012 with 1.7 million fewer votes than it received in 2009, when it won only 64 district seats. All pre-election polls show the LDP actually increasing its seats in Parliament as turnout plunges to postwar lows.
The question then is what Abe will do with his win. In theory, he should devote himself to economic policy, but it isn’t yet clear if he has the stomach for the political fights that will accompany the only policies he hasn’t yet tried: substantial domestic reform.
Many Japanese fear that Abe will instead focus on his real interest, the liberation of Japan from the “masochistic mentality” that has been imposed during the postwar period. Abe is a conservative nationalist who would like to see the constitution rewritten to eliminate the famous Article 9 that renounces war as an instrument of state policy. He wants Japan to be able to use its armed forces to contribute to international (and mostly regional) peace and security.
To be clear, Abe is no bug-eyed imperialist and Japan is not remilitarizing. The prime minister does seek a more conventional perspective on the use of “hard power,” an approach that alarms some of Japan’s neighbors -- and many Japanese, both inside and outside his own party. Even if this election yields the anticipated results, Abe will face considerable opposition to a more radical national security policy. Ironically, winning may prove to be a losing proposition if this ballot galvanizes more opposition to Abe’s agenda.