Japan election: A referendum on ‘Abenomics’?

The forthcoming elections to the Upper House are getting more attention than usual.

upper house election campaign
The support rating for the ruling party stood at 33.5 percent, climbing up by 2.6 percent from the previous poll [EPA]

The usually low-profile elections to the Upper House of Japan’s bicameral legislature will this time serve as a crucial moment for the country with potential ramifications reaching beyond the poll.

The triennial elections to the House of Councillors generally don’t attract as much attention as those to the House of Representatives, which chooses the prime minister.

This vote, though, to replace half of the 242-seat house, is being seen as a referendum on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ambitious economy policy. Dubbed “Abenomics”, it was designed to help drag the world’s third biggest economy out of a two-decade deflationary spiral.

It will also determine whether or not Abe will be able to push ahead with his cherished goal of revising the pacifist constitution – a huge departure from traditional post-war thinking.

Such a move, on top of contentious security laws that significantly eased restrictions on the army, freeing them to fight overseas for the first time since World War Two, would constitute a source of even larger concerns – not only to a majority of the public in Japan, but also to neighbours such as China and South Korea, who still vividly remember atrocities committed by Japan in the first half of the the last century.

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A national referendum to revise the constitution would need the support of two thirds of both houses. While Abe’s ruling bloc won a two-third super majority in the Lower House in the 2014 election, they currently have only a majority in the Upper House.

Until the beginning of this year, the ruling bloc appeared poised to comfortably win the necessary seats as Abenomics produced some positive effects on the economy with the benchmark Nikkei index soaring from around 10,000 to a record 18-year high of 20,868 in June 2015 and the yen’s value down from around 85 yen against a US dollar to 125, boosting profits for Japan’s exporters.

“Abenomics has achieved, first, an increase in corporate profits, and second, because of that, some investment by companies,”  Hiromichi Shirakawa, a chief economist at Credit Suisse in Japan, told Al Jazeera.

However, economic uncertainties have started to cast a cloud as China’s economic growth slowed and the UK voted to leave the European Union, reversing a hard-earned positive trend and contributing to growing distrust among voters.

Despite a certain amount of success, Shirakawa said: “Wages have been quite sluggish in terms of growth and low income and small businesses have not yet been benefiting from any pick-up in profits of large companies. There is a big gap between large firms, small businesses and households.”

The opposition has both labeled Abenomics a “failure” and criticised Abe’s attempt to revise the pacifist constitution, saying it could bring the country into the shadow of war.

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Left-leaning opposition parties, including the main opposition Democratic Party and the Japanese Communist Party, will field a unified candidate in all 32 contested single-seat electoral districts.

Voter disenchantment was highlighted when a recent opinion poll in the Asahi Shimbun newspaper showed that 55 percent of respondents wanted Abenomics to be reviewed and opponents of constitutional revision outnumbered supporters.

However, support for the ruling Liberal Demographic Party (LDP) stood at 33.5 percent, climbing up 2.6 percentage points from a previous poll conducted immediately after campaigning kicked off last month.

The main opposition Democratic Party’s support remained at 10.4 percent, according to the latest survey by Kyodo News Agency.

For those not familiar with Japan’s politics, the disconnect between the dissatisfaction with Abenomics and the relatively high support for the ruling party is hard to grasp.

“Although people are not seeing some of the growth and the other benefits that they’d like to see, there are no other alternatives on offer,” Tina Burrett, a professor of political science at Tokyo’s Sophia University, told Al Jazeera.

“People don’t feel that the opposition parties are credible when it comes to economy and social policies,” she added.

For now, the ruling coalition’s strategy of diverting attention from controversial security issues and appealing for the continuation of stability in a country that has seen seven prime ministers in a decade appears to have outsmarted their rivals.

Source: Al Jazeera