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.
Jeffrey Hornung has been an associate professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS) since 2010, focusing mostly on East Asian security issues, especially related to Japan, and US-Japan relations. He is also an adjunct fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Prior to joining APCSS, Dr. Hornung served as a Postdoctoral Researcher at The Ohio State University’s East Asian Studies Center. Previously, at the George Washington University, he served as a research assistant for a project entitled Memory and Reconciliation in the Asia-Pacific. He has extensive experience in Japan, including having worked for a member of the House of Representatives during the 2001 House of Councilors election, and 15 months on a Fulbright Fellowship conducting his doctoral research at the University of Tokyo, where he was a visiting scholar.
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 did he have to pay?
HORNUNG: The coalition gained only 4 seats overall, and these seats came through the Komeito, not the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The Komeito increased from 31 seats to 35 seats while the LDP fell from 293 to 291. While it is true that this means nothing significantly has changed in terms of coalition votes in the Lower House, it is important precisely because the coalition has retained its 2/3 majority, thereby giving the coalition power to pass laws without the Upper House (if the coalition loses its majority there in the next election). Because this past weekend’s election has given Abe Shinzo four years to govern without the need to call an election, Abe has gained long-term stability, something rare in Japanese politics. With this much time, he has the luxury to continue to flesh out his vision for Japan and push ahead with the domestic reforms he has been promoting. Without a doubt Abe will feel the same pressures of maintaining party harmony that all his predecessors have faced, but because Abe has shown he is an electoral force to be reckoned with, as long as his popular support rates remain respectful, it will be difficult for any credible opposition to emerge within his own party to topple him.
But this luxury to pursue his policies is a double-edged sword. The messaging out of the Kantei before and during the election was that Abe needed more time for his economic policies, dubbed Abenomics, to work,. The election gave Abe time and a retained-2/3 majority, but that means he has to deliver results. The “we need more time” rhetoric will only work once. If there is little widespread positive economic data four years from now, the electorate will only hold one person and one party accountable, so Abe and the LDP have to deliver. If they do not (and assuming that the opposition parties get their act together), we could see an election similar to the 2009 election, when the LDP was taken to task and booted from power.
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?
HORNUNG: I would not read too deeply into the LDP’s loss of two seats. This is because those two seats would not have mattered much from a procedural perspective. After all, 317 seats are needed for a 2/3 majority, which the coalition won together. Given Abe’s intention to keep his same cabinet line-up, the coalition retaining its 2/3 majority, and Abe framing the election as a mandate on his economic policies, I do not see much changing. Instead, I expect more of the same, which would likely have been the case whether or not the LDP won more seats.
The bottom line is the fact that the LDP and Komeito are the only viable options as governing parties right now, as seen from the voters. So it is natural that they would win big. And they did.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Does Komeito having gained some seats complicate the management of the coalition on controversial issues like collective self-defense and nuclear energy?
HORNUNG: Again, although the Komeito picked up an additional 4 seats, I do not think the current situation will change much. The Komeito will continue to be a brake on Abe’s policy agenda. We have seen this push and pull between the coalition partners for well over a decade of rule, particularly when it comes to security-related policies. But this brake on policies is not just the exclusive realm of Komeito. The LDP remains a big-tent party. Although the various LDP factions may not be as strong today as they were in their heyday, liberal/moderate factions continue to exist, like the Kishida Fumio faction. These factions too will continue to play important braking roles in internal LDP debates. Together, these factions and the Komeito will continue to function as de facto opposition parties until the opposition parties pull themselves out of their current disarray and forge visions and policies of what they stand for instead of what they stand against.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Where does the DPJ go from here?
HORNUNG: The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) seems to be the party that everyone likes to criticize. Yet, the DPJ gained eleven seats (from 62-73), demonstrating that the public still have some lingering faith in it as Japan’s viable second choice. That said, the party fell short of DPJ party head Kaieda Banri’s call to gain 100 seats, thereby falling well short of being able to give the LDP any trouble numerically in the Diet. What is more, 73-seats is not a number that would make it within the realm of the possible to credibly aim for a majority in the next election.
The biggest news from the election for the DPJ was Kaieda’s electoral defeat, the first time since 1949 that the leader of an opposition party lost. While his loss should not be extrapolated to define the weakness of the DPJ as a whole, his loss should be seen as a lesson learned as to why the right leadership matters. Kaieda was never the best choice as leader for the DPJ. As such, his defeat should be seen as a long-term good for the DPJ. The party needs to rebuild and define a vision of what it stands for. Importantly, it needs a leader with some level of charisma and trust amongst both the DPJ’s supporters and members. This task will most likely fall on former-Foreign Minister Okada Katsuya or former-Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano Yukio.
DISPATCH JAPAN: What is the significance of the very conservative PFG being virtually wiped out?
HORNUNG: The gains made by other opposition parties meant losses had to occur somewhere, and nowhere were these losses felt harder than in the Party for Future Generations (PFG). The PFG was crushed by the election, winning only two seats (compared to its 19 pre-election total). Not only did party head, and former Governor of Tokyo, Ishihara Shintaro lose, so did Tamogami Toshio, former Chief of Staff for Japan’s Air Self-Defense Forces who gained media attention for his nationalist views. The election was the first chance for the PFG to go before the public since its May 2014 split, providing voters their first chance to register their opinion about the party’s platform. The virtual eradication of the party is significant because it sends a strong message from the electorate that the party was out of touch or too far rightist for voters. Whichever case is true, the results demonstrate the PFG’s views/platform did not resonate with the public.
DISPATCH JAPAN: By contrast, the JCP did very well. Why?
HORNUNG: The Japanese Communist Party (JCP) won 21 seats, up from its pre-election total of 8. While this is a big victory for the JCP, I think it is mistaken to overemphasize the JCP’s electoral victory. This is largely because, unlike any other opposition party, the JCP was the only party that fielded candidates in every single-seat district. With the JCP’s consistent stances opposing nuclear power, consumption tax hikes, and changes to Japan’s security policies, they stand as protest vote to the LDP policies. This meant that any protest vote against Abe and his policies would go for these JCP candidates if no other opposition candidate was running in that district; the JCP becomes the default choice in many districts. The one significant outcome for the JCP is the fact that through its electoral victory, it will now have the statutory authority to propose legislation for the first time (although it is unlikely their bills will be passed).
DISPATCH JAPAN: Does the record low turnout have any immediate implications?
HORNUNG: The voter turnout was 52%, which is a record low. This low turnout weakens any claims of a mandate for Abe’s policies. This low turnout can be read in a few ways: 1) the electorate did not care much for Abe and his policies; 2) the electorate does not like the opposition parties; or 3) the electorate did not understand or feel the need for an election. Regardless of the reason, the only immediate implication of the low turnout will be on the difficulty of claiming a mandate.
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?
HORNUNG: While Abe framed the election as a vote on Abenomics and his economic policies, the LDP’s victory means that Abe has four more years with a 2/3 majority to pursue all aspects of his agenda (trade, security, Okinawa). Yet, bolstered by the results, it is unclear what Abe will do differently than what he has already done. The election results favor Abe by giving him both the parliamentary votes and more time. With a solid win in the elections, it will be difficult for others in the LDP to oppose him (even if they wanted), so he will be emboldened to push ahead with his pet policies. However, depending on public opinion (and the brakes imposed by Komeito), Abe will encounter obstacles to many of these policies that may derail his plans. In the end, I think the policy implications of the election will boil down to how Abe reads his mandate.
The biggest implication of the LDP’s win may be felt in Japan’s approach to the TPP. Japan’s strong agricultural cooperatives have stalled TPP negotiations. Now that Abe has won, and is guaranteed four more years in office, he has the ability to stand-up to the agriculturalists without fear of electoral retribution (although it may sow the seeds within the LDP for a future battle between Abe and the LDP’s agricultural tribe). How hard Abe pushes the agricultural cooperatives may depend on whether the U.S. Congress gets fast track authority. After all, Abe does not want to spend his limited political capital by taking on the strong agricultural interests only to face a U.S. unwilling to accept Japan’s compromises.
DISPATCH JAPAN: What about collective self-defense: Is Abe’s hand strengthened or weakened in the upcoming battles over CSD legislation?
HORNUNG: When it comes to security policies, critics like to say that Abe will use his 2/3 majority to revise Japan’s constitution to push for a more assertive Japanese military. While Abe is no doubt going to still pursue legislation to broaden Japan’s reinterpretation of its constitution to allow for the exercise of collective self-defense, the election results in no way strengthen his hand vis-à-vis the legislation. Not only does he still have to deal with Komeito’s more pacifist views and those hesitant within the LDP, but there is still a significant number of Japanese who oppose the reinterpretation. Abe is aware of this and will work on building more internal support via nemawashi. This is going to take time and considerable energy.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Concerning Okinawa, do you think Tokyo will change its approach, or just push ahead with Henoko-FRF?
HORNUNG: Concerning US bases in Okinawa, I think the significance of the election is less than meets the eye. No doubt people will interpret the election results as making the issue worse. No LDP candidates (who supported the Futenma Replacement Facility – FRF-- relocation) won in their single constituency seats; instead, they were saved by the Proportional Representation system. Quite frankly, winners of Diet seats from Okinawa are not going to affect Abe’s authority over the FRF deal; the recent gubernatorial election is what matters. However, the LDP losses—and opposition wins—remind Abe of the ongoing opposition by a sizeable portion of the population to US bases.
US policy has been to seek political sustainability of its overseas bases, which means the continuing opposition to bases in Okinawa -- manifesting itself with anti-base candidate victories in the governorship, Lower House, and a mayor in the Henoko-area -- should send a clear message to Tokyo and Washington that something needs to change.
The last thing Abe wants is for Futenma to become a nagging thorn in alliance relations. Although Abe has said that Henoko is the only option for the FRF, it is going to be tough for him and the US to ignore the Okinawa opposition.