In June this year, an election called 3 years early by Theresa May saw her majority lost and authority damaged after her plan to secure a mandate for carrying out Brexit backfired. On October 22nd, another island nation on the other side of the world will go to the polls in a premature election – Japan.
Shinzo Abe, the Japanese Prime Minister and leader of the incumbent Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), called the election of September the 25th, over a year before the next election was due in late 2018. Abe cited two main reasons for the snap election. The first was to legitimise his plans to repurpose ¥2trn out of ¥5trn in revenues expected from a planed sales tax hike in 2019. The entire revenue was initially meant to pay of part of Japan’s national debt, which stands at a staggering 250% of GDP. Abe plans to use this ¥2trn for education and social spending. He also seeks a mandate to modify Japan’s peaceful constitution following aggression from North Korea, which recently launched two missiles over the island of Hokkaido.
But really – Why?
Opposition to Abe and the LDP in Japan has been particularly weak recently. Following the 2014 election, the main opposition party was the Democratic Party (DP), which holds a pitiful 88 seats in the House of Representatives compared to the 323 seats help by the governing coalition of the LDP and the smaller Komeito party, out of a total of 465 seats. As of September 28th, however, the DP was effectively disbanded, with representatives running with the newly-formed Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP) or the Party of Hope.
Critics also point to Abe’s resurgent approval ratings as a reason for the snap election. His ratings are currently around 50%, up from 30% in July following a string of scandals. Similarly, he may be calling this election to distract from these various scandals – such as using his influence to help a friend get permission to open a private veterinary school and selling land at an extremely low price to a primary school teaching an ultranationalist curriculum. With no effective opposition to call Abe out on these scandals, now seems the most auspicious time for him to secure another term. If he had chosen to tough it out till next December, the CDP and the Party of Hope may have had time to form an effective opposition and really challenge the LDP.
Not too hopeful
Shinzo Abe called the snap election the same day that Yuriko Koike, governor of Tokyo, announced that she was forming a new party – the Party of Hope. At the time, the Party of Hope seemed a serious challenge to LDP power. Koike had already proven herself a challenge; in 2015, she was denied the opportunity to run in Tokyo’s gubernatorial elections for the LDP. She then formed her own local party, Tomin First, and defeated the official LDP candidate. Perceiving this threat, Abe said he’d consider the election a victory if he managed to retain a simple majority.
However, the Party of Hope has failed to break the status quo as many felt that it would do. In terms of policy, the party has few differences with the LDP, aside from a rejection of Nuclear Energy. Both have similar standpoints on security. The relative similarity of the two parties on key issues – Koike herself even said there was no difference between her and the LDP – has led to the Party of Hope receiving less support than speculated. This has been made worse by the short preparation time the fresh Party of Hope had before the election. Some polls even put the CDP ahead of the Party of Hope in the polls, although even the CDP are a long way behind Abe and the LDP.
The Key Issues
Nuclear power remains a prominent issue in Japanese politics, following the disaster at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in 2011 in the wake of a tsunami and earthquake. In 2012, a year after, 70% of people believed that the use of nuclear power in Japan should be reduced. Despite the opposition to nuclear energy, Abe backs a full restoration of nuclear power, compared to the Party of Hope which wishes to phase it out. The CDP also wishes to reduce Japan’s reliance of nuclear power.
With North Korea posing a major threat, security is naturally in the minds of many voters. Abe wishes to amend article 9 of Japan’s peaceful constitution, which states than Japanese soldiers cannot participate in offensive activities. This is a divisive issue – poll in April found that 49% want to amend article 9, whilst 47% are opposed to its amendment. Koike is partial to the idea of expanding Japan’s military potential. The CDP meanwhile has vowed to oppose Abe on article 9 and seeks to maintain the peaceful constitution.
The 2019 sales tax is another hot topic of the campaign. Abe fully plans of going ahead with the tax hike and plans to spend some of the income on social spending such as pensions, which is of importance for a nation with an aging population. Koike wants to suspend this hike, as do the CDP.
What does it all mean?
The debate over whether article 9 should be amended makes this election of importance. Japan has maintained a peaceful constitution since 1947, when it was created following the second world war. A departure from this may increase tensions in East Asia – in particular with China, who may see the amendment as a form of aggression. It may also further provoke North Korea, despite their actions already.
The election results may also pose questions about participation in Japan. Turnout in 2014 was just 53.3%, supposedly a record low, and has been little above 50% in recent years. The similarity between opposition parties such as the Party of Hope and the LDP, as well as the fragmentation of the DP into the CDP that many voters may be unfamiliar with could lead to a further decline in turnout. NHK, the Japanese public broadcasting organisation, said that a turnout of 50% or lower would create a ‘crisis for democracy in Japan’.
Either way, it seems that Abe and the LDP are on their way to secure another term, which may make Abe the longest serving prime minister in post-wartime Japanese history. The DP is fragmented, and the Party of Hope failed to gain momentum. However, May was ahead in the polls during the election this year, and despite remaining the largest party, her majority was swept away. Granted, Abe holds a much greater lead over rivals than May did over Corbyn; but if recent elections in the UK, the USA and the Brexit result are anything to go off, Abe could find that his complacency works against him.