Japan is scheduled to go to the polls on October 22 for electing a new House of Representatives following the decision taken by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to opt for a snap election. Abe’s decision to dissolve the House, a full year earlier than required, indeed came as a surprise to many. Many analysts have described Abe’s action as a political gamble.
In the just dissolved body, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), along with its ally the Komeito Party, enjoyed a massive strength of 322 members, accounting for more than two thirds majority. It is anybody’s guess that Abe is not likely to retain that much strength after the October 22 election. If that is the reality, the question arises: What were the compelling reasons for Abe to take this extraordinary decision?
It is useful to remember that in 2014, Abe took a similar decision and scored an unprecedented victory, capturing more than two thirds strength in the house. But now he has realised that his position within the country was not as strong as in 2014. During 2013-15, Abe had strengthened his power by establishing a stable government by stressing an economic policy package called Abenomics and pursuing effective security and foreign policies. But since the turn of 2016, many incidents of administrative arrogance and laxity began to appear rather glaringly. His own alleged involvement in some cases of political favouritism, LDP’s dismal failure in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly polls in July and many political gaffes and misconduct committed by his own cabinet colleagues and lawmakers had undermined the position of the government. This was amply reflected in the sharp decline of Abe’s approval ratings in the country. By July, the ratings went down to below 35% from 65% recorded a few months earlier.
Reacting quickly to this negative trend, Abe reshuffled his cabinet with a view to regaining the lost ground. Though the approval ratings started improving, Abe feared that he could lose more if he waited until December 2018 when the regular Lower House election was to take place.
His calculation was that the opposition political parties, if they had adequate time, could recoup and realign themselves to pose a challenge to the ruling coalition. In particular, he thought that Ms. Yuriko Koike, after winning the Tokyo Assembly polls in July, was gaining a great deal of national stature and could pose a threat to his government. It so happened that Abe’s announcement on the dissolution of the Lower House coincided with Koike’s launching of her new party called Kibi no To (Party of Hope).
The new party at once changed the whole dynamic of Japanese politics and led to one of the most unexpected party alignments of this century in Japan. The Democratic Party (DP), the principal opposition party with more than 80 seats in the House, was the worst affected. Its leader Seiji Maehara, unable to face the new political situation, virtually disbanded the party and encouraged its members join the new Party of Hope and fight the election under its banner. The Democratic Party had disappointed the Japanese electorate during 2009-12 when it was at the helm. Its dismal performance during those years damaged its position and led to its ouster from power in the 2012 election. Since then the party had been struggling hard to win the trust of the electorate.
With Maehara’s green signal, numerous DP members opted to join Koike’s bandwagon. Koike on her part made it clear that she would scrutinise the background of the DP members and only those who complied with the policies of her party would be admitted. But there are too many DP members with liberal and socialist connections hailing from the previous generations. Not only they have refused to join the Koike bandwagon, but have formed their own party under the leadership of former DP leader Yukio Edano. The new party is called the Constitutional Democratic Party which is having an electoral understanding with other smaller parties including the Communist Party of Japan ( JCP ) and the Social Democratic Party.
As the campaign has officially commenced, there are three major contending groups in the field — 1) the LDP-Komeito combination, 2) the Party of Hope along with the Innovation Party and 3) the Constitutional Democratic Party along with the JCP, and other smaller parties. But the main contest is centered on Prime Minister Abe and Koike. It is recognised that there is no serious ideological difference between Abe and Koike. In the past, Koike had served in the cabinets of Junichiro Koizumi as well as Abe. She served as the Defence Minister under Abe for a short period and as such she is on the same page with Abe on the question of amending the Constitution. Whereas the constitutional amendment for Abe would essentially mean modifying article 9, Koike would like to have a more comprehensive view of the issue. But she has not clarified her position with regard to the specifics of the amendment. She is also in favour of supporting the legislative measures taken by Abe in 2015 in connection with Japan’s right to collective self-defence.
But there are major differences between the two on certain issues of national importance. On the question of raising consumption tax which has been a burning issue in Japan in recent years, Abe is keen to hike it from the present 8% to 10 % with effect from October 2019, but Koike is totally against it and wants it to be frozen altogether. Similarly, on the question of nuclear power, Abe is keen to resume nuclear reactors as a key component of his national energy strategy. But Koike is totally against the resumption of nuclear reactors.
Whereas the constitutional amendment for Abe would essentially mean modifying article 9, Koike would like to have a more comprehensive view of the issue. But she has not clarified her position with regard to the specifics of the amendment. She is also in favour of supporting the legislative measures taken by Abe in 2015 in connection with Japan’s right to collective self-defence.
Similarly, both Abe and Koike have fundamental differences with the third group of parties like the Constitutional Democratic Party, the Communist Party, etc.
When Abe called for the present snap election, he thought that it would be the usual rubber stamp election which would result in a thumping victory for his party. But the emergence of Koike as a popular national figure showing a strong resolve to defeat the ruling LDP coalition has infused a new life into the electoral politics. Abe has been in power since 2012 and his popularity has gradually started declining. Now he wants to ensure that his party wins at least 233 seats, a simple majority in the House of 465 members. He may well succeed in his modified goal thanks to the peculiar Japanese electoral system that consists of single seat constituencies and seats elected through proportional representation. But merely winning 233 seats would not be enough for Abe to realise his long cherished goal of amending the Constitution. For proposing a constitutional amendment he would need two thirds majority strength in the House which has 310 seats and he may well find it a formidable task.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).