Not even Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s sharpest critics can easily dismiss the results of his astute political decision to dissolve the Diet and hold a snap Lower House election on December 14. It is no small accomplishment to retain the top position in a coalition government with a two-thirds parliamentary majority.
Still, it is hard to escape the feeling that Abe emerged from the election with a somewhat diminished stature. Aside from Abe buying himself some extra political power, what else came from a $700 million election that left the ruling coalition with a virtually unchanged governing majority?
Fully half of the Japanese electorate simply stayed home, choosing instead to sit out the race. Some of this was due, no doubt, to a sense in the country that the outcome of the election was set in stone, obviating for many any sense of urgency to vote. But for many others, the decision to stay home seemed to be driven more by a frustrating sense that there simply were not any particularly good options.
Abe himself campaigned on the less-than-inspiring slogan “There is no alternative.” The LDP barely got 50 percent of the 50 percent of voters who bothered to cast ballots.
The low voter turnout – the lowest in postwar history -- undercuts any notion that the election result marked an endorsement of Abe, or either his foreign policies or much bally-hooed economic program dubbed “Abenomics.”
Indeed, postelection polls by Asahi Shimbun found that 60 percent of respondents believe the two-thirds majority held by the LDP-Komeito coalition is “excessive.” A full 50 percent of LDP voters agree with that assessment, while 76 percent attributed the big LDP victory to the lack of any attractive political party. Ironically, in a sense, voters seemed to agree with the LDP slogan about the lack of an alternative.
Despite considerable speculation that the dominant Liberal Democrats would pick up a good number of seats, the LDP actually lost two, putting its ideological rival but coalition partner Komeito in a marginally stronger position to moderate Abe’s hawkish proclivities.
Parallel to Keimoto’s success was the surprisingly strong showing of the Communist Party, which has been Abe’s most vociferous critic on foreign policy and history issues. Having doubled its seats in the Diet, the JCP will now be able to introduce legislation, and will surely play a more vocal role in parliamentary debates.
The flip-side of the same political coin was the virtual elimination from the Diet (from 20 seats down to 2) of the arch-nationalist Party for Future Generations, headlined by former Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara and former Air Force chief of staff Toshio Tamogami. The latter, who heatedly denies that Japan invaded China or colonized Korea, has long benefited from the perception that Abe supports him. Before his return to office, Abe regularly appeared at political events with Tamogami. Another prominent ultra-rightist to bite the dust was Hiroshi Yamada of Tokyo’s 19th district. Yamada, also a leader of the PFG, was known for his public exhortations for Abe to revoke the Kono Statement regarding wartime “comfort women.”
Abe has probably managed to forestall any challenge to his leadership next September, when his three-year term as LDP president (and thus prime minister) is up for renewal. But a good number of veteran political journalists in Tokyo say that even that, while likely, is far from assured.
Moreover, the election did nothing to alter the fundamentals underlying pre-election trends of rising unhappiness with Abenomics, and noticeable erosion in the support rate for both Abe and his Cabinet. Abe’s hold on power depends almost entirely on his ability to deliver improvements in the economy that voters can tangibly feel in their everyday lives. On that front, Abenomics up to now has left voters feeling very disappointed. Many eyes will be on the prime minister’s election night promise to continue to jawbone private sector leaders on the need to raise wages.
And the policy agenda facing Abe only looks tougher. He’ll soon have to compile a stimulus package for a sclerotic economy shoved into recession by his decision earlier this year to go ahead with a rise in the national consumption tax. Then comes the need to compile a national budget, which will have to deal with larger-than-expected revenue shortfalls made inevitable by Abe’s more recent decision to postpone until 2017 the second half of what was supposed to be a two-part consumption tax increase.
Abe will also have to decide whether to push for politically controversial reforms in the agricultural sector, which the US wants as part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations, but which the LDP essentially promised its rural supporters it would not do. There is considerable speculation that Abe will choose to accommodate the powerful agricultural lobby at least until after the Upper House elections scheduled for the summer of 2016, so as to politically advance the prospects for revision of the Constitution, the goal closest to Abe’s heart.
And then lurking not too far behind is important but controversial national security legislation, about which LDP partner Komeito greatly disagrees with Abe. It was not too long ago that Abe supporters openly talked about scuttling the alliance with Komeito in favor of alignment with rightists like those in the PFG, so as to give the prime minister a freer hand to broadly reinterpret Article 9 of the Constitution, and pave the way for only limited restrictions on the exercise of the right to collective self-defense (CSD). Those days appear gone, now that voters have wiped away the LDP’s right flank in the Diet. Abe and the LDP need Komeito more than ever, a fact that Komeito leaders know very well, and will likely use to their advantage when national security issues (especially CSD) reappear for debate next year.
Perhaps most irksome for Abe is the situation on Okinawa, where voters once again strongly rejected the proposed construction of a new US Marine air station in the Henoko district of the prefecture. All four LDP candidates from Okinawa were soundly defeated on Sunday, which follows the November election of Takeshi Onaga, a fierce opponent of the base project, as governor. One of Abe’s signature accomplishments since his 2012 return to office was appearing to have resolved the vexing Henoko issue. It turns out that Tokyo only coerced and cajoled LDP stalwarts on Okinawa, such as former governor HirokazuNakaima, to go along, while Okinawa residents remain largely opposed. It is becoming harder to say that the projected Henoko base will meet the US criteria that overseas facilities be “politically viable.” It remains to be seen how much political capital Abe is willing to spend to push the project forward.
Many postelection headlines implied that the coalition’s victory on Sunday assures Abe of four more years in office. While it is technically true that another Lower House election is not legally required before 2018, the odds seem rather long that the prime minister will be able to successfully traverse Japan’s treacherous political-policy landscape that long.
Far from the seemingly-invincible, transformative political heavyweight many analysts sized-up Abe to be shortly after his 2012 return to office, the prime minister more and more has the look of a quite ordinary LDP politician. Stronger than most, no doubt, but a far cry from the charismatic figures that former prime ministers Yasuhiro Nakasone and Junichiro Koizumi proved to be, and an even further cry from the historical figure Abe often seems to view himself to be.