Cracks in the Abe Monolith: Political Ground Shifting in Advance of Lower House Election


Voter disaffection with the leadership style of Prime Minister Abe Shinzō and his circle has forced the prime minister to reshuffle his cabinet, retract his timetable for constitutional reform, and rethink his political strategy. Takahashi Masamitsu reviews the developments that have shattered Abe’s complacency and their implications for Japanese politics leading into the next general election.

In early August, with cabinet approval ratings at ominously low levels, Prime Minister Abe Shinzō took bold steps to counter the growing perception that he and his political allies have grown drunk with power. On August 3, the prime minister announced a new cabinet lineup while publicly apologizing for controversies that have alienated the voters. It remains to be seen whether Abe can rebuild the public’s trust enough to salvage a third term at the helm of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. With the LDP’s presidential election slated for September 2018 and a House of Representative election looming no later than December the same year, Japanese politics is entering a period of heightened fluidity and uncertainty.

Voter Backlash

The outcome of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election last July was a wakeup call for Abe and his ruling Liberal Democratic Party. The LDP took a historic beating at the polls, winning a mere 23 out of 127 seats in the Metropolitan Assembly (as compared with its previous low of 38), while Tokyo Governor Koike Yuriko’s upstart Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First) came away with 55. Seeing which way the wind was blowing, Kōmeitō, the LDP’s longtime coalition partner, opted to ally itself with Tomin First

in the Tokyo race and secured 23 seats, demonstrating the strength of its organization and the loyalty of its base. The outcome was taken as a rebuke to Abe’s party and a warning that voters nationwide could abandon the LDP if presented with viable alternative.

Nationwide opinion polls taken shortly after the Tokyo election made clear that the anti-Abe backlash was not just a local urban phenomenon. Only about a third of the respondents surveyed expressed support for the cabinet, a precipitous drop from just a month earlier. The results of the Jiji Press poll were particularly troubling for the prime minister, showing the cabinet’s popular support at just 29.9%. The conventional wisdom here is that no prime minister can hold on long with a cabinet approval rating under 30%.

The main cause of the public’s alienation is a series of recent controversies for which Abe himself has been rightly held responsible. Among these are the Kake Gakuen affair, involving charges of special treatment for one of Abe’s close friends in the administrative approval of a new school of veterinary medicine; remarks by then Minister of Defense Inada Tomomi (another member of the prime minister’s inner circle) implying the Self-Defense Forces endorsed a particular candidate in the Tokyo assembly election; and the ruling coalition’s highly irregular decision to bypass upper house committee approval of a conspiracy bill in order to rush through the contentious legislation and hasten the adjournment of a politically damaging Diet session. To the public, these transgressions demonstrated the high-handed behavior of a ruling clique—centered on Abe—that had come to see itself as invulnerable.

This sense of invulnerability rested on the LDP’s success in four straight national elections (including upper house races) and the public’s unflagging support for the Abe cabinet over the past several years. But the foundations of Abe’s confidence came crashing down in the space of a month with the LDP’s crushing defeat in the Tokyo assembly election and the cabinet’s nosedive in the public opinion polls. The prospects for a third term as party president—an ambition dear to Abe’s heart—have suddenly dimmed. Aware that any further decline in popular support could trigger a “dump Abe” movement inside the ruling party, the prime minister moved to defuse criticism and regain his political footing by appointing a new team of cabinet ministers and party executives.

The Abe Regime’s New Face

There was no change at the penultimate level of cabinet and party leadership: Deputy Prime Minister Asō Tarō, Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide, and LDP Secretary General Nikai Toshihiro all remained in their posts. In other appointments, the prime minister bowed to both political expedience and public opinion. Kishida Fumio, lately minister for foreign affairs and a leading candidate to succeed Abe, was granted his wish of chairing the LDP Policy Research Council, and the Kishida faction’s allotment of cabinet posts doubled from two to four, as Abe moved to secure the cooperation of his biggest potential challenger. Several appointments seemed designed to deflect charges of favoritism and cronyism: For minister of internal affairs and communications, Abe chose Noda Seiko, a rival who considered challenging his party leadership in 2015. For foreign minister, he tapped Kōno Tarō (eldest son of former Foreign Minister Kōno Yōhei), a dovish moderate known for his outspoken views.

Kōno’s appointment to this highly visible post may also be a strategy to blunt Kishida’s momentum. Kōno belongs to the powerful Asō faction, from which a clear favorite in the race for next-generation leadership has yet to emerge. If Kōno acquits himself well as foreign minister, he could quickly find himself in the running for party president.

In the immediate aftermath of the cabinet reshuffle, the major opinion polls registered a rebound of between 2 and 9 points in the cabinet’s approval rating. With Jiji Press showing a 6.7-point bump, to 36.6%, the prime minister and his allies are doubtless breathing easier. The big question is whether Abe can build on this momentum. Negative impressions of the Abe government still outnumbered the positive in all but the Kyodo News poll.

If the cabinet regains the support of close to half the electorate, Abe will be in a good position to secure a third term as LDP president. If support sinks back into the danger zone, he will be lucky to finish out his second term. The poll numbers over the next few months could well determine the fate of the Abe administration.

Putting the Brakes on Constitutional Reform

Meanwhile, the illusion of invincibility has collapsed, and with it the prime minister’s ambitious timetable for revising the Constitution.

In early May, Abe announced that he wanted to see an amended Constitution come into force no later than 2020. He then called on the LDP to submit a draft to the Diet’s constitutional reform commissions during an extraordinary Diet session in the fall. The plan, it seemed, was to push the amendments through the Diet during the final stretch of the 2018 regular session—enlisting the pro-revision Nippon Ishin no Kai to secure the necessary two-thirds majority in the House of Representatives—and then hold a constitutional referendum concurrently with a lower house election. This timetable ruled out dissolution of the Diet before the summer of 2018, lest the pro-amendment forces lose their two-thirds majority.

Of course, Abe knew that any effort to push through a constitutional amendment on such a tight schedule would meet with fierce and concerted resistance from the Democratic Party and other opposition forces, and that the rancor would spill over into the general election and referendum. Nonetheless, he clearly felt he had the public support and political momentum to survive such a head-on collision. All that has changed in the wake of the Tokyo assembly election.

The Tokyo election demonstrated that the LDP no longer has the organizational strength to mobilize local voters without the cooperation of Kōmeitō. This realization has substantially boosted Kōmeitō’s leverage in policy matters as the next general election approaches. Kōmeitō, for its part, is extremely leery of changes to the Constitution’s war-renouncing Article 9 and has made it clear that it would oppose any revision that runs roughshod over the opposition. Faced with this political reality, Abe has backed away from his original timeline and said that he will “leave it to the party” to work things through with the opposition.

Election Timing Affected

Abe’s decision to ease up on the drive for constitutional reform has opened up more options for scheduling the next lower house election. There has even been speculation that the prime minister will dissolve the lower house in time to hold a snap election on October 22, when by-elections are scheduled for Aomori 4th district, Ehime 3rd district, and Niigata 5th district. It seems improbable that Abe would dissolve the House of Representatives so soon after a cabinet reshuffle, but a lower house election later in the year is not out of the question.

Practical options for the timing of the next lower house election boil down to four. The first is sometime before the end of this year. The second is at the start of the next Diet session, which will convene in January. The third is spring or early summer, after the fiscal 2018 budget is passed but before the Diet adjourns. The fourth option is to wait until after the LDP’s presidential election in September and hold the lower house election sometime between then and December, when the current members’ terms expire.

Regardless of the timing, few political observers expect the ruling coalition to match its performance in the last general election, when it blew away the opposition and secured a two-thirds majority in the House of Representatives. The question is how to minimize its losses. Some analysts believe that Abe will opt to hold the election sometime this year in order to catch the opposition forces unprepared. That is a strategy that could be particularly potent against the fledgling force backed by Tokyo Governor Koike (see below). Another argument for holding an early election is to take advantage of the cabinet’s post-reshuffle bounce in popular support. Kōmeitō leader Yamaguchi Natsuo will not rule out the possibility of a general election within the year, stating that his party is “in a constant state of battle readiness.”

However, it could also be quite risky for Abe to call a general election before memories of the Tokyo debacle have faded and the newly reshuffled cabinet has had a chance to redeem itself. If the strategy were to backfire, leaving the LDP short of a lower house majority (not counting coalition partners), Abe may find himself ousted as party leader.

Prime Minister Abe will doubtless weigh all these considerations in deciding the optimal timing for a general election. He is also likely to factor in the results of the  October 22 by-elections, which could provide an early indication of the direction in which voter sentiment is trending.

Eyes on Governor Koike

One of the most closely watched players in this unfolding political drama is Tokyo Governor Koike Yuriko, whose popularity and political acumen helped propel the newly formed Tomin First no Kai to a landslide victory in the July Metropolitan Assembly election. A national party under Koike’s leadership could pick up enough seats in the capital region alone to seriously alter the balance of power in the Diet.

On August 7, Wakasa Masaru, an independent lower house member and close ally of Governor Koike, held a press conference to announce the formation of a new political group named Nippon First no Kai (Japan First), an obvious reference to Koike’s Tomin First no Kai. His immediate objective, he said, would be to enlist the support of other Diet members with the aim of forming a new national party sometime this year.

Although it is clear that Koike is backing the effort, she has thus far denied any intention of returning to national politics and insists that the national organization is in Wakasa’s hands. But the movement’s continued momentum will surely hinge on the degree and visibility of Koike’s involvement at critical stages, including the establishment of a new party and the recruitment of candidates for the general election. Politicians and pundits across the spectrum will be tracking Koike’s every move in the months ahead.

(Originally published in Japanese on August 21, 2017. Banner photo: Prime Minister Abe Shinzō announcing his new cabinet lineup at a press conference on August 3, 2017. ©Jiji)

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