Abe’s Election Ploy Pays Off

Onoe Kimitoshi [Profile]

[2017.11.02] Read in: 日本語 |

The October 22 snap election for the House of Representatives was short on substance, but Prime Minister Abe Shinzō’s bid to catch the opposition off-balance paid off spectacularly, as an old challenger fractured and a new one fizzled. Veteran journalist Onoe Kimitoshi examines the political calculations and missteps behind the latest Liberal Democratic Party landslide and the challenges that lie ahead for the government.

The ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Abe Shinzō’s Liberal Democratic Party maintained its supermajority in the October 22 lower house election, securing 313 out of 465 seats in the House of Representatives. The LDP itself won 284 seats, including those taken by three independent candidates endorsed retroactively, while its junior coalition partner, Kōmeitō, came away with 29.

The ruling coalition’s numbers in the lower house now exceed the two-thirds majority needed to initiate constitutional amendments, and with the added support of Nippon Ishin no Kai, the Party of Hope, and other pro-amendment opposition forces, Abe seems well positioned to realize his dream of presiding over the first-ever revision to Japan’s postwar Constitution. But overturning the all-important, war-renouncing Article 9 could prove difficult, given divisions within the ruling camp. For now, Abe has promised to work closely with the opposition to draft an amended Constitution with broad-based support while pursuing the economic growth policies in which the voters have placed their hopes.

An Election About Nothing

Policy issues often seem beside the point in Japanese elections, with the outcome influenced more by the public’s passing mood than by any substantive debate. Certainly that was the case this time around.

The biggest reason for this lack of substance was timing. The last Diet session had ended in June amid charges of cronyism surrounding the Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Gakuen controversies. Those questions, along with a series of gaffes by cabinet members, had caused Abe’s public approval rating to plummet. In August, he reshuffled his cabinet in a bid to regain his political footing. Then in late September, at the start of the extraordinary Diet session convened at the insistence of the opposition, he abruptly dissolved the House of Representatives and called a snap election before Diet debate had even begun.

The ruling coalition already enjoyed a supermajority in the Diet and had encountered few serious obstacles to its legislative agenda. What was the rationale for a snap election? The prime minister claimed the need for a fresh mandate to address the “national crises” of the North Korean threat and a rapidly aging society, but this pretext was greeted with skepticism; after all, creating a political vacuum is hardly the best way to deal with a security crisis, and Japan’s demographic crisis is not a recent or sudden development.

Once the election was called, the LDP pledged to devote the extra revenues from the consumption tax increase scheduled for October 2019 to education, but this was clearly an election promise cooked up on the spur of the moment without any serious discussion within the party. In the end, the election came down to Abe’s performance over the past five years and whether the voters trusted the opposition to do any better.

Abe’s Consummate Timing

The key to Abe’s relatively long and virtually unchallenged tenure as leader of the ruling LDP is the party’s extraordinary track record in national elections under his leadership. As the prime minister himself boasted at the October 23 press conference following the party’s latest landslide, “This is the first time in roughly a half-century that the LDP has received a majority of seats in three straight lower house elections, and it’s the first time in the party’s sixty-odd-year history that it has done so under the same president.” That achievement owes a lot to strategic timing.

The full term for a member of the House of Representatives is four years, but it is common for prime ministers to dissolve the lower house and call an election sometime after the midway point in that term. Since the previous election was held in December 2014, it seems probable that Abe greeted 2017 with the intent of dissolving the House of Representatives within the year, bearing in mind the LDP presidential election scheduled for September 2018 and the expiry of lower house members’ terms the following December.

But that was before the Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Gakuen scandals caused the Abe cabinet’s seemingly unshakable approval ratings to take a nosedive. In June and July 2017, all the major polls showed negative opinions outnumbering the positive. From Abe’s viewpoint, this did not bode well for a fall general election.

What changed this calculus was the chaos within the opposition. The leadership of the Democratic Party, then still the largest opposition force, was in a state of profound disarray, exacerbated by a scandal surrounding the lawmaker initially tapped to serve in the party’s number-two position. Meanwhile, popular Tokyo Governor Koike Yuriko, whose upstart regional party had stunned the LDP in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election the previous July, was gearing up to launch a national party. Under these circumstances, an early election might catch the opposition forces off-balance and give the advantage to the LDP.

Abe’s approval rating had recovered somewhat in the wake of his August cabinet reshuffle. But once the fall Diet session opened, the prime minister would once again be subject to the opposition’s cross-examination, and support could slip. Moreover, if tensions with North Korea continued to escalate, the government’s hands would be tied. And as the lower house terms drew to a close, it would become increasingly difficult to time the election to the LDP’s advantage. Such were the considerations behind Abe’s decision to dissolve the lower house at the beginning of the fall extraordinary session and hold a general election four weeks later.

What made that decision controversial was the lack of urgency from a legislative or policy standpoint. Typically, when prime ministers dissolve the House of Representatives, they cite divisions over policy that are blocking key initiatives. For example, Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichirō called a snap election in 2005 after the Diet rejected his postal privatization bill, and the election became a referendum on that issue. Abe broke an unwritten rule by calling a surprise election purely for strategic political reasons.

As soon as the word was out, the opposition scrambled. On September 25, Governor Koike announced the formation of the Party of Hope under her own leadership. The purpose, she said, was to present voters with a viable alternative to government by the LDP. The struggling DP, under its new leader Maehara Seiji (elected on September 1), decided to ride Koike’s coattails through a merger with Hope. The two parties had fundamental policy differences, but these would be dealt with later. If the LDP was going to resort to cynical tactics, the opposition would, too.

Party of Dashed Hopes

For a while, all eyes were on Koike as the wildcard capable of shaking up an otherwise humdrum election. A former LDP Diet member, Koike had captured the public’s imagination as David to the LDP’s Goliath in the 2016 Tokyo gubernatorial race. Even after failing to win the LDP’s endorsement, she had gone for broke and won by a landslide. Then in July 2017, her upstart Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First) had crushed the LDP in the Metropolitan Assembly election to become the most powerful party in that body. She had stood up to the LDP bosses and prevailed. This was enough to guarantee her popularity, at least for a time. The Japanese love an underdog.

Governor Koike appears at a press conference at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government headquarters on October 6, 2017. (© Jiji)

However, the love affair was short-lived. On September 28, with the fragmented opposition struggling to unite in advance of the coming election, Koike announced her decision to exclude politicians from the DP’s left wing unless they were willing to abandon their dovish positions on security and constitutional revision. This statement alone cost Koike dearly, since it cast her in the light of a political heavyweight in her own right instead of a fresh, new challenger.

Meanwhile, Koike’s hastily formed national party lacked a concrete platform, and its rather vague call to “break the fetters of vested-interest-driven politics” failed to connect with voters. Far from challenging the LDP’s supremacy, the Party of Hope lost seven of the lower house seats it had secured before the general election. In the end, Koike’s strategy split the anti-LDP vote and contributed to the ruling parties’ landslide.

Another factor behind her party’s poor performance was the conflict inherent in Koike’s position as party leader and governor of Tokyo. She presented the Party of Hope as a viable alternative to LDP rule, but she herself could not have served as prime minister without first being elected to the Diet. Some have suggested that she originally intended to resign as governor and enter the lower house race at the last minute. But as the LDP’s mediagenic young star Koizumi Shinjirō so aptly put it: “Koike is irresponsible if she runs, and she’s irresponsible if she doesn’t run.” The appearance of indecisiveness undercut her image as the fearless maverick willing to risk all.

Ultimately, it is hard to view the Party of Hope as a legitimate national party along the lines of the LDP, the Democrats, or the Japanese Communist Party. A political party can be defined as a group of people who band together for organized political action aimed at realizing a set of shared principles and policies. The Party of Hope went into the general election with a leader, a bunch of candidates, and a few election promises, but no manifesto, no bylaws, and no nationwide organization. It seems more in the nature of a private party organized around the person of Koike, or at best a movement to loosen the hold of vested interests. At the local level, that movement was effective, but the effort to translate it into a political organization at the national level was unsuccessful.

Challenges for Abe

Notwithstanding the ruling coalition’s overwhelming victory, Prime Minister Abe will have to work hard to maintain the popular support he needs to remain at the helm.

One major challenge will be restraining his urge to plow ahead with revision of the postwar Constitution, a longtime dream driven by Abe’s deep-rooted nationalism. Back in 2012, when his LDP trounced the hapless Democratic Party of Japan, Abe’s slogan was “bring Japan back.” These days, similar calls to “take back our country” are heard more and more frequently among the nationalist forces that are enjoying a resurgence in Europe and America. Indeed, that was the victory cry of the far-right, anti-Islamic Alternative for Germany when it emerged as Germany’s third-biggest party in the September 24 federal election. US President Donald Trump’s “America first” ideology is part of the same general trend.

How vigorously will Abe pursue his dream of amending the Constitution now that he has presumably secured a new mandate?

For a Japanese politician, Abe has a decidedly aggressive leadership style. In the Diet, he has repeatedly angered the opposition parties by running roughshod over their objections or treating them with contempt. For the most part, this strategy served him well until the Moritomo and Kake scandals began to escalate. Those controversies raised widespread concern that Abe had succumbed to the “arrogance of power.”

Chastened by the precipitous drop in support, Abe pledged to proceed more “humbly.” He used the same term repeatedly following the October 22 election, but one cannot but suppose that the LDP’s victory has further strengthened his conviction and confidence. That said, there are deep misgivings among the public and even within the ruling coalition when it comes to revising Article 9. This is an area in which Abe needs to tread cautiously, with patience and genuine humility.

What the people expect most from the Abe cabinet is unquestionably a steady hand on the tiller of economic policy. Before and after the election, the Nikkei average rose for 16 straight days on expectations of continuity in government policy, reaching a postwar high.

Yet the growth policy known as Abenomics has thus far fallen short of the government’s targets for growth and inflation, notwithstanding five years of massive fiscal expansion and monetary easing. The government has essentially abandoned its goal of eliminating the primary budget deficit by 2020, raising growing concerns about fiscal discipline.

Unlike Japan, which has little to show for its quantitative easing, the nations of the West are either pursuing or actively formulating exit strategies from the monetary expansion of the past few years. If Japan alone remains on its QE course and falls behind global economic trends, the resulting turmoil in the domestic economy could shake the Abe administration to its roots.

(Originally published in Japanese October 31, 2017. Banner photo: Prime Minister Abe Shinzō pins a paper flower above the name of a winning LDP candidate at the party’s election headquarters on the evening of October 22, 2017. © Jiji.)

  • [2017.11.02]

Political journalist. Born in 1955. Upon graduating from Waseda University, joined Kyodo News, where he reported on domestic politics. Served successively as lead reporter covering the Prime Minister’s Office, assistant political editor, and chief page editor for the News Center. Served on the Board of Directors from 2013 to 2017.

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