On December 14, Japan’s ruling Liberal Democrat (LDP) / Komeito coalition easily won a snap election called by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, retaining its impressive two-thirds majority in the national Diet. But low voter turnout, continued voter doubts about the government’s economic program, and polls showing sagging popularity of the prime minister and his cabinet, raised questions about the depth and durability of Abe’s win.
Michael Auslin is a resident scholar and the director of Japan Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he specializes in Asian regional security and political issues. Before joining AEI, Auslin was an associate professor of history at Yale University. He is a biweekly columnist on Asia for The Wall Street Journal, and his books include “Pacific Cosmopolitans: A Cultural History of U.S.-Japan Relations” (Harvard University Press, 2011). Auslin has advised both the U.S. Government and private business on Asian and global security issues. He has been named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, a Marshall Memorial Fellow by the German Marshall Fund, and a Fulbright Scholar, among other awards.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Abe’s coalition retained its large majority, but the LDP lost a few seats, and the coalition did not gain much. So, what benefit does Abe garner from having called the election, and what, if any, price does he pay?
AUSLIN: Abe gained the aura of being the one person who is determining the pace and momentum of events in Japan. If he had not called the election, and bad news kept coming in, pushing down his public support rate, he would have looked like every other recent prime minister in Japan, sitting by passively, watching support drain away.
Abe was not going to change course dramatically. The election was pure politics. Abe proved once again that he is the only person in Japan with a plan. So the election staunched any major loss of support. It put the sense of momentum back on Abe’s side.
Abe gains a greater appearance of invulnerability than any other prime minister has had in a long time.
The only downside for Abe would be if a narrative took hold that the election was not a real mandate because only half of the electorate turned out to vote.
One issue of concern is the extent to which the last two elections indicate Japan is moving back toward a one-party system, or a one and a half party system. Maybe Japanese voters are comfortable with that, though I am not sure about that. In any case, the one-party dominance of the LDP was ultimately not healthy for Japan, or the LDP itself, and it would be problematic if Japan were to move back in that direction. A party that is not seriously contested can easily lose contact with voters, and lose a sense of priorities. That’s why a viable opposition is ultimately quite important.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Is there any significance to the LDP having lost a few seats, given some speculation that the party might pick up quite a few?
AUSLIN: Abe set the bar low, so the results do not look bad. As a percentage of total seats in the Lower House, the LDP entered the race holding 61.5 percent, and ended the election holding 61 percent of the seats. Taking into account that the total number of Lower House seats has been reduced by five, to 475, the LDP lost very little. Overall, the coalition easily maintained its two-thirds super-majority in the Lower House.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Does Komeito having gained some seats complicate the management of the coalition on controversial issues like collective self-defense and nuclear energy?
AUSLIN: I think it does somewhat. The LDP really depends on Komeito to provide voter support to LDP candidates in districts where the Komeito does not field a candidate. The degree is hard to measure, but Komeito will be able to restrain Abe on some issues that are particularly important to him, including collective self-defense and the restarting of nuclear power plants. He will proceed more gingerly, especially on collective self-defense and reinterpreting Article 9. This just reifies the complex facts of life that Abe has to deal with.
DISPATCH JAPAN: What is the significance of the very conservative PFG being virtually wiped out?
AUSLIN: Shintaro Ishihara and Toshio Tamogami both lost, as did all but two of the other PFG candidates. The Democratic Party (DPJ) was not obliterated, even though the party leader Banri Kaieda lost. So no one can really say that the Japanese electorate is moving to the right. Japan has not changed all that much. The country is not becoming ultra-nationalistic. Voters are relatively balanced.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Where does the DPJ go from here?
AUSLIN: The DPJ never had a common core identity. It is comprised of centrists and left-wingers, and it ultimately did not hold together very well. The party has not had good leaders. The DPJ, in a sense, has to find its own version of Abe: someone who is coherent, and can articulate a bold vision. At this point, bold in some sense is more important than correct or realistic. For a long time I have expected both the LDP and the DPJ to break up, with the centrist elements from the two parties joining together. Obviously, that is not going to happen any time soon. So I really don’t know where the DPJ will go from here. Voters in Japan can feel the DPJ’s current lack of direction, even though the party did manage to pick up some seats in the election.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Will the election results have any policy implications? For example, trade and TPP: Is it now easier for Abe to push for reform? Or, might this strengthen his hand vis a vis the US to resist reform?
AUSLIN: There are no obstacles in Abe’s path. There is no real threat of an intra-LDP challenge to Abe, or a serious threat to the LDP itself. Whatever gets done, or not, over the next four years is solely up to Abe. He will go as far as he wants. And if Abe is really not committed to reform, it won’t happen. We should know one way or the other within the next 3-6 months. It will be clear whether or not he plans to make his second term really mean something. If he is going to go forward, I think he will bulldoze forward, especially on collective self-defense and other security issues that are really important to him.
On trade, Abe’s hand is stronger vis a vis the US, and he can demonstrate that he will not be bullied. At the same time, if he really means it when he says the “third arrow” and structural reform are priorities, he can turn to every constituency in Japan and simply insist that change is necessary, and push it through. He will face some opposition from agricultural interests. But no one else is offering a real alternative, so he should have no problems getting reform measures through the Diet, if that is the direction is really wants to move in. He could present various reforms, including within agriculture, within the labor market, and with respect to deregulatory policies, and cuts in corporate taxes, as a package. That would represent a Koizumi-level of “shock and awe,” and with the opposition in disarray, he could push this through.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Will Tokyo change its approach to Okinawa, or just push ahead with Henoko-FRF?
AUSLIN: I don’t think the new governor can stop the project. He can slow it down. But the decision has been made, and it would be very difficult to just uproot that decision. I think the Obama administration has turned its attention to broader issues, with the sentiment that Washington has done as much as it can to move the FRF-Henoko project forward. It is now the responsibility of the central government in Tokyo to make sure the project gets done. On the US side, everyone is committed to the project, but with no expectations about how it will progress. It will happen when it happens. And until it gets done, the US will keep Futenma open.
The two countries spent so many years bogged down on the Okinawa issue that the Americans now feel that with the December 2012 agreement to move forward with the FRF-Henoko project in hand, the time has come to focus on the big picture, especially revision of the bilateral guidelines for defense cooperation. For Abe, managing the Okinawa issue will be a real challenge. In some ways it will challenge his power, but it will also test his skills as a politician.