Tokyo, Japan – Japanese citizens are set to vote in a snap general election on Sunday, in what some observers see as an opportunistic political move to prolong Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s reign past his four-year term at a time when his popularity is sky high.
The election comes just two years after the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) won a landslide victory, and two years ahead of the normal four-year term. Given that little has changed in voter preference for the LDP over the weak opposition – including the 2012 losing incumbents, the Democratic Party of Japan – it is an election few wanted, fewer expected, and no one had planned for.
Upon receiving news of negative economic growth numbers, LDP leader and Abe held a televised news conference on November 18 to announce he was postponing by 18 months a consumption-tax hike scheduled for next October.
The increased revenues had been earmarked for social programmes, but Abe feared a tax hike would hinder economic recovery. Abe told reporters his announcement was the result of a “grave, grave decision”.
So grave, in fact, that he went on to declare he needed a mandate from the people to support his decision and his overall economic strategy, and therefore would dissolve the House of Representatives – the lower house of the Diet, or parliament – on November 21.
|Masatada Tsuchiya, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party candidate from a Tokyo district, and his canvasser wave to pedestrians [AP]|
All about ‘nothing’
Many political observers and even members of the LDP, however, don’t buy into Abe’s explanation.
Michael Cucek, adjunct fellow at Temple University Japan, speaking at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo last week, reported how a senior LDP member had “gleefully” told him: “This is an election about nothing. It isn’t about anything at all.”
Regarding the election’s outcome, at least, this appears to be the case.
Polls published by several Japanese media organisations, including the Yomiuri and Nikkei newspapers, all predicted a huge LDP victory of about 300 of the 475 seats in the lower house.
And should the LDP manage to win 315 seats, it would be able to have its policies enacted without having to consult with its junior partner in government, the Komeito Party, which together with the LDP make up the current ruling coalition.
These dizzying predictions indicate that the hurried consolidation efforts and attempts to present a common front by some opposition parties, “has had virtually no effect. This is quite shocking”, said Cucek.
Given the likelihood of a landslide victory, why did Abe call the snap election?
Takao Toshikawa, author and editor-in-chief of Tokyo’s Insideline, a respected political publication, who spoke at the same conference as Cucek, suggested it is a way to promote leadership longevity.
He pointed out that since 1955 there have been only thee prime ministers that have held lengthy administrations of about six years. “And common to all three,” said Toshikawa, “is that they all called snap elections two times under their own initiative”.
By choosing to hold an election when polls overwhelming favour his party and are predicting a landslide victory, Abe should easily be able to ride his success and retain the LDP presidency in next September’s leadership vote, which is held every three years.
This would ensure he remains in power unhindered for a further four years.
During this time Abe aims to fulfil a number of goals, including the controversial decision by the government to see the restart of nuclear plants.
But chief among his immediate aims is achieving economic success through a growth strategy dubbed Abenomics.
Abenomics is the LDP’s package of economic strategies meant to jolt Japan out of its 15-year deflationary and even longer stagnatory cycles.
It is characterised by Abe’s “three arrows”: A three-pronged combination of monetary, fiscal and structural reforms intended to kick-start the sluggish economy. Arrow 1 has the LDP seeking a 2 percent inflation rate to spur on the economy.
Arrow 2 is an economic stimulus package of about 20 trillion yen ($1.7bn) in government spending. And Arrow 3 refers to structural reforms aimed at boosting business and industry. But according to Toshikawa, Abe has an overarching long-term goal that is more important to him than anything – even more than continuing on as prime minister after 2018.
“It is to revise the constitution,” said Toshikawa.
And by holding the snap election now, it could give him a clear run to prepare for that difficult task.
Few political observers claimed to be as capable as Toshikawa at channelling Abe’s overriding desire to change the constitution.
“Not being a mind reader, I won’t go that far,” Jun Okumura, visiting researcher at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs in Tokyo, told Al Jazeera. “But I am sure that revising the constitution is at or near the top of Prime Minister Abe’s list of political goals.”
Japan’s pacifist constitution was written up by US military authorities in 1947, following the US victory in WWII. In particular, Abe wants to revise Article Nine, which has Japan renounce war and refrain from keeping a standing military.
In fact, he has already taken a leap in that direction.
On July 1, Abe announced a reinterpretation of the constitution that now allows Japan in certain situations to engage in “collective self-defence”. In other words, Japan can now take part in military action in support of an ally that has come under attack.
What’s more, in his New Year’s Day speech to the nation this year, Abe said “[W]ith regard to the constitution … it is soon going to be 68 years since its enactment. I believe that now we should deepen our national discussions further, with a view to introducing amendments that incorporate various changes.”
Any constitutional revision, however, requires not only a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Diet, but also a majority vote in a special national referendum, making such a serious amendment difficult to achieve.
“My understanding is that a healthy plurality of us Japanese still prefer to maintain Article 9 as it is,” said Okumura.
“A people that blanches at the idea of collective self-defence – even as it supports individual measures that are justified under that rubric – is not going to support amending a constitutional restriction that justifies Japan’s minimal role in overseas armed conflict.”
And Abe’s image as an ultra-conservative politician only makes the task more difficult.
Consequently, “Mr Abe, who is an extremely rational and realistic man, does not believe that while he is president of the LDP, he can effect a revision of the constitution,” said Toshikawa.
Come September 2018, when Abe’s term as LDP president ends, Toshikawa said he believes he will not run again for the LDP presidency. Instead, he will step back and promote the LDP General Secretary Sadakazu Tanigaki, who is more liberal, to be leader.
“Under a more liberal leaning LDP,” said Toshikawa, “there is going to be a greater chance of constitutional revision happening”.
Given such a possible outcome, rather than this being “a election about nothing”, it could turn out to be a watershed moment in Japan’s post-war political history.