NEW YORK – Japanese will vote in the Oct. 22 general election amid uncertainty and confusion resulting from the recent realignment of the political landscape, which may have lasting implications in shaping Japan’s future direction.
When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe surprised the nation with his decision to dissolve the Lower House last month, victory for his ruling coalition in the snap election appeared certain. The largest opposition Democratic Party was in disarray with its change of leadership and mass defections of lawmakers following the crushing defeat in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election in July. Nor were other opposition forces fully prepared for the vote called more than a year before Lower House members’ terms expire in December 2018.
It was widely believed that Abe’s decision was motivated by a political calculation to consolidate his power within the Liberal Democratic Party and ensure his re-election next year as the party’s president for a third term, so that he can stay in office through 2021. The opposition parties, caught off guard, criticized the dissolution of the Lower House less than two months after Abe’s latest Cabinet reshuffle as lacking a legitimate cause. Instead, they say the move was driven by a desire to sweep the recent favoritism scandals involving friends and acquaintances of his and his family under the rug.
The events that ensued, however, were drastic enough to leave many voters wondering which party to vote for. Tokyo’s popular Gov. Yuriko Koike formed a new national party, Kibo no To (Party of Hope), which quickly emerged as the major contender to Abe’s ruling alliance after absorbing most, if not all, of former DP Diet members. The DP practically disbanded — a small group of liberal-minded members of the party, led by deputy chief Yukio Edano, formed a new party of their own, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), while some others decided to run as independents.
The LDP-Komeito coalition argues that the continuation of strong political leadership is indispensable at a time when Japan faces an unprecedented level of security threat from North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs. Demonstrating a strong intention to remain at the helm of government — and cognizant of the recent decline in his approval ratings — Abe has set a modest target in the upcoming vote: securing a simple majority by the ruling alliance, or 233 seats in the 465-member Lower House. This should be easy for the ruling coalition to clear, given that it commanded a two-thirds majority of the chamber going into the race. Abe has said he will step down if his coalition fails to clear the target. However, he could still face pressure from within the LDP to step down if the coalition ends up with a narrow victory that barely secures a majority.
Opposition parties contend that Abe is using the North Korean threat to his advantage and demand that his style of governance, which they criticize as “authoritarian and arrogant,” be brought to an end. They also call for a freeze or cancelation of the planned 2019 hike of the consumption tax to 10 percent, citing adverse effects on the economy whose recovery they say is still weak. Abe said his administration will go ahead with the tax hike but will divert part of the increased revenue to boost public spending on education, instead of paying off government debt. They also differ on whether the war-renouncing Constitution needs to be revised. Both the LDP-Komeito bloc and Koike’s new party favor revision, although pro-amendment forces still differ on the specifics of the actual change.
While each party’ policy platforms matter, the credibility of their leaders is considered equally or even more important in determining the outcome of the upcoming race. Abe is known to be a strong leader — he has often said that the responsibility of politicians is to see the future and walk three steps ahead to lead the general public. That’s well said, though this type of leadership can sometime generate a sense of arrogance and aloofness. Still Abe’s image as a strong leader, buoyed by the planned visit to Japan next month of U.S. President Donald Trump with whom he brags of having a close friendship, may work in favor of the prime minister and his party.
Koike, a flamboyant politician with impressive credentials such as being the first woman to take up an LDP executive position, defense minister and more recently, governor of the capital, is handicapped by her decision not to run for a Lower House seat, which means that she cannot be a candidate for prime minister even if her party wins, either on its own or through a coalition with others. That her party seems to lack any other credible candidate for prime minister — it has been unable to show who will be its candidate when the Diet chooses the prime minister after the Lower House election — may also be a minus for the party. If her party does not fare well this time, Koike may have no option but to focus on her job as Tokyo governor, including successfully hosting the 2020 Olympics, while preparing for future moves ahead of the next Diet election.
CDP chief Edano is known for his hard work as chief Cabinet secretary under Prime Minister Naoto Kan to cope with the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. Media forecasts indicate that his party, though small, will gain a certain presence in the post-election Lower House by attracting votes from those critical of the Abe administration.
The Japanese Communist Party, which has in recent years explored campaign cooperation with other opposition forces, in particular the DP, to boost opposition chances against Abe’s governing bloc, is supporting Edano’s CDP by not fielding candidates in many electoral districts where the CDP competes, so as not to split the anti-Abe vote.
No matter what comes out of the Oct. 22 race, in which more than 1,100 candidates are competing for the 465 up for grabs, voters should remember that the ballots they cast may trigger further political realignment that could shape the future direction of Japan.
A former United Nations official, Hitoki Den is a commentator based in New York. He is the author of “Kokuren wo Yomu: Watashino Seimukan Noto Kara” (“A Story of the U.N.: From the Notes of a Political Affairs Officer”) and many articles on U.N. and Asian issues.