Author: Justin Reeves, Southern Methodist University
While general elections in Japan were not legally due for another 14 months, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s snap decision to hold them on 22 October should surprise no one.
At first glance, the timing seemed puzzling. Economic improvements notwithstanding, 2017 has not been kind to the Abe government. His cabinet approval ratings plummeted in March in the wake of revelations that a private, staunchly nationalistic, kindergarten for which his wife served as ‘honorary principal’ received an inexplicably heavy discount in its purchase of government land. Before he could recover from that, Abe was embroiled yet again in another scandal over political favouritism for a personal friend seeking to open his own veterinary school. His approval ratings fell to 26 per cent — the lowest point of his second term in office, which began in December 2012.
To make matters worse, and not unrelated to the administration’s recently tainted repute, Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was trounced in July’s Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly elections by an upstart regional party founded by the prefecture’s first female governor and celebrity, Yuriko Koike. As it became clear that she would continue to make waves with the creation of a national party — the Party of Hope — that would target the LDP’s same pool of independent and right-leaning voters, it seemed Abe had nowhere to go but down.
That was until Kim Jong-un (‘un’ coincidentally being the Japanese word for ‘luck’) decided to conduct his largest ever nuclear test and launch a series of ballistic missiles. Two of these missiles flew over Japanese territory, while the sense of threat was further heightened among the population with the resulting air-sirens and text message warnings.
Abe’s support in public opinion polls rebounded immediately, as does that of nearly any incumbent government in the face of foreign threats. With uncertainty about how long this rally-behind-the-leader effect would last, and the looming prospect of a new popular party rival that seeks to expand its organisation and reach, Abe’s best bet for retaining a parliamentary majority was to hold elections before the status quo could get any worse.
Japan’s main opposition, the Democratic Party (DP), posed little threat on its own under the less than charismatic leadership of newly elected party leader Seiji Maehara. Abe gambled that the snap election would afford the internally divided DP insufficient time for any effective coordination with Hope or others in the opposition.
What he wanted was a repeat of 2012 — when the DP (then Democratic Party of Japan) had a dismal electoral performance, the centrist opposition remained divided and the upstart populist regional party centred around a celebrity (this time being Toru Hashimoto’s Ishin no Kai from Osaka) failed to live up to its initial hype. What he is now poised to get is even better.
The DP’s lower house contingent has completely disbanded. Its right flank has merged into Hope, its left flank has erected a new party the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, and Maehara is running rudderlessly as an independent. Despite the initial ballyhoo, the Party of Hope is projected to win only 57 seats from the 235 candidates it is fielding — proportionally worse than Ishin in 2012, which took home 54 seats with 172 candidates.
As much as Hashimoto’s more unrealistic proposals — such as abolishing the upper house — invited criticism in 2012, Koike’s baldly populist ‘12 zeros’ platform and her lacklustre gubernatorial performance became an object of ridicule in online social media platforms and unflattering media reports. Hope’s support dropped from 19 per cent to 13 per cent in the first 10 days that pollsters started querying voters after Koike’s new party announcement (while the LDP’s held at 32 per cent).
Among the likely election outcomes at this point, the worst case scenario for Abe is that the LDP–Komeito coalition falls a few seats short of the 310-seat supermajority threshold that they currently exceed with 14 seats to spare. Even if that does happen, the revisionist’s self-imposed deadline of 2020 for a proposal on constitutional reform will still very much be on the table.
The LDP will still need Komeito for its upper house supermajority, but the DP split and Hope’s rise now affords Abe a more policy-compatible menu of coalition partner options in the lower house. Though Koike has coyly alluded to the possibility of postelection coordination with other opposition groups, the stark ideological divide between them makes either formal or ad hoc cooperation between Hope and the current governing coalition far more likely.
While the party system will still be in flux after the dust settles, we can be sure Abe’s constitutional reform ambitions will remain. In the lead up to the next upper house election in 2019, we should expect some consolidation within Japanese opposition groups as competition centres around the salient issue of revising/protecting Article 9.
Justin Reeves is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southern Methodist University.