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.
Tobias Harris is a Japan specialist with Teneo Intelligence, a Washington-based advisory firm. Prior to joining Teneo, Mr. Harris was an independent analyst of Japanese politics, and creator of the blog Observing Japan. In this capacity, he provided running commentary on the Japanese political situation and its effect on foreign and economic policy. He has written for many publications, and is a regular on-air contributor to CNBC. In 2011-2012, he was a Fulbright scholar at the Institute for Social Science at the University of Tokyo, where he conducted research on the Japanese bureaucracy.Before working as an analyst, in 2006-2007 Mr. Harris worked on the staff of Keiichiro Asao, at that time a member of the upper house of the Japanese Diet and shadow foreign minister for the Democratic Party of Japan, for whom Mr. Harris conducted research on foreign policy and Japan’s relations with the United States.Mr. Harris holds an M.Phil in International Relations from the University of Cambridge. He received his bachelor’s degree from Brandeis University.
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?
HARRIS: Abe has gained some time, but how much is unclear. Many people talk about Abe having won another four years in office, as if that is somehow guaranteed. I am not convinced of that, at all. But he gains some time, during which things could go right. He might achieve a breakthrough on some policy front that would cement his legacy. But overall, I don’t think the election changes very much.
Remember, Abe went into 2014 looking as if he would be the strongest prime minister in memory. The narrative took hold that he was remaking how the system works, and that all policy roads led to an increasingly strong, centralizing Kantei.
I don’t think this is true anymore.
Over the course of the year, we saw strong push-back from the old Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The election has not changed that. The media had hyped up the likelihood of a really big, smashing LDP win, and it didn’t happen.
If anything, Abe looks a little deflated.
Meanwhile, the policy agenda for the New Year is really packed. Abe has to prepare a stimulus package, he has to get a budget passed, and the nuclear energy issue is looming. At some the Diet will take up national security legislation.
Over the next six months, there will not be much time to take a breath.
One thing that could make Abe’s life easier would be clear signs of rising wages, which would put the economy on a sounder footing.
But Abe faces so many issues where only one false step could put more dents in his popularity rating.
The fact that voter turnout was so low tells us that the underlying dynamics that preceded the election – declining support for Abe and for Abenomics – have not changed.
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?
HARRIS: There are LDP-affiliated independents who will now join with the LDP, so not too much emphasis should be placed on this point. But even if the LDP ultimately winds up with the same number of seats, there are a lot of people who are asking: “What was the point of the election?”
DISPATCH JAPAN: Does Komeito having gained some seats complicate the management of the coalition on controversial issues like collective self-defense and nuclear energy?
HARRIS: The fact that Komeito picked up a few seats is less important than the fact that the Party for Future Generations (PFG) collapsed. And Your Party is also gone, along with Yoshimi Watanabe. Last summer there was a lot of debate about collective self-defense, and there was talk that if Komeito did not go along with the LDP, the LDP might look for another coalition partner, but from the right. It was unclear then just how serious the threat really was, but now the threat does not even exist.
In some ways, Komeito won the election. The party came out with more seats, and the LDP’s dependence on Komeito is now cemented.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Where does the DPJ go from here?
HARRIS: Things can only get better. The party spent two years doing nothing. Now, with party leader Kaieda having lost his seat and thus forced out, there is a chance the DPJ will elect a new leader who is actually capable of sorting through the party’s issues and coming up with a vision that will actually attract voters. There are a number of candidates, including Yukio Edano. To some extent the DPJ just needs generational turnover. They need middle-ranked people to move into senior positions, and actually try to forge something new. The DPJ did not pick up as many seats as it had anticipated, while the Innovation Party did better than anyone expected. So if there is talk of forming of new opposition party, the DPJ will not be in as strong a position to negotiate terms as it might have expected before the election.
DISPATCH JAPAN: What is the significance of the very conservative PFG being virtually wiped out?
HARRIS: I suspect voters realized it was farcical that Shintaro Ishihara and Takeo Hiranuma were heading up a party supposedly promoting the interests of “future generations.” Seriously, this tells us that there really is not room in the Japanese political system for a truer, purer right wing party. That notion is a fantasy. The Innovation Party, which like the PFG is an offshoot of the older Restoration Party, is much-less right wing. The Innovation Party is more technocratic. In some sense, the Innovation Party is a bigger Your Party.
DISPATCH JAPAN: By contrast, the JCP did very well. Why?
HARRIS: The JCP was a great gatherer of protest votes. Coming out of its best election in years, the JCP is not going to start rebranding. This means there is a ceiling on how much influence the party can have. The party will now make lots of noise, asking troublesome questions in the Diet, generating good sound bites. But the JCP is not going to cooperate with the non-Marxist parties.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Does the record low turnout have any immediate implications?
HARRIS:It will affect the narrative about the election, with people asking what the purpose was. The low turnout means Abe is not likely to get the honeymoon from the election outcome that he might otherwise have gotten. But I doubt that this will slow Abe down. There are other things that will slow Abe down, but not the low turnout. There were doubts about Abe, and Abenomics, before the election, and those doubts are still there. There was falling support for Abe and the Cabinet before the election, and after a little time I think that will continue.
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?
HARRIS: LDP candidates spent a lot of time with their constituents during the campaign, and they heard a lot of opposition to TPP, to agricultural reform. LDP back-benchers will have a hard time following Abe’s lead should he decide to take on agricultural reform in a serous way. Just one month after an election campaign in which the LDP essentially ran against agricultural reform, it will be difficult for Diet members to say: “I know what I said during the campaign, but now the prime minister is telling us to support reform.” I don’t think they can do that.
On the other hand, I don’t think Abe wants to be in the position of saying “no” to the US. That might help him inside the LDP in the short-term, but in the long-term Abe would not look good.
A lot depends on the US passing trade promotion authority (TPA). If Obama and the Congressional Republicans can get that done relatively quickly, then Abe still might have enough of a honeymoon that he might be able to also move quickly. The longer this takes, the more the shine will wear off of Abe, and the more difficult it will be to achieve reform in Japan. The impetus to implement agricultural reform, to twist the arms that need to be twisted, will decline
Everyone knows that the status quo for agriculture in Japan is not sustainable. I wonder if the support for, and strength of the JA (Japan Agricultural Cooperatives) might actually be exaggerated. TPP is there as a lever for change that is inevitable. Abe might not even have to push that hard, not because he is strong, but because JA might be weaker than it appears to be.
DISPATCH JAPAN: What about collective self-defense? Is Abe’s hand strengthened or weakened in the upcoming battles over CSD legislation?
HARRIS: Komeito will still drive a hard bargain, and will ensure that the process does not go quickly. The language authorizing collective self-defense will be tighter than Abe wants.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Will Tokyo change its approach to Okinawa, or just push ahead with Henoko-FRF?
HARRIS: The election of Onaga as governor was more important than the LDP losing all four races for the Lower House in Okinawa. Tokyo will ignore those results.