By Nicholas Szechenyi —
Today, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan announced plans to dissolve the Lower House of the Diet (parliament) later this week and schedule a snap election sometime in October, about a year ahead of schedule. Abe expressed his desire for a mandate from the voters to implement his economic growth strategy and demonstrate strong leadership in response to the increased threat from North Korea. Though bolstered by a recent bump in his approval rating after a difficult summer marred by political scandals, Abe’s announcement coincided with the establishment of a new political party that is expected to champion political reform and could emerge as a new force in Japanese domestic politics.
Q1: What is the political backdrop behind this decision?
A1: Rumors of a snap election emerged earlier this month prior to Prime Minister Abe’s visit to New York for the UN General Assembly meeting. Abe’s approval rating plummeted over the summer after a series of political scandals but rebounded to about 50 percent on average after he reshuffled his cabinet and coordinated closely with the United States and other partners in response to the crisis with North Korea. Abe’s ruling coalition enjoys a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Diet and a Lower House election need not be held until December 2018, so why go to the polls now? Abe called a snap election back in 2014, at that time two years ahead of schedule, to decimate a fractured opposition and clear the path for implementing his legislative agenda. That decision paid off as his ruling coalition won in a landslide and solidified his political footing. The rationale for this election is fundamentally the same—to weaken the opposition—but the political dynamics around him have changed with various actors seemingly preparing to challenge him. Today’s announcement arguably reflects a defensive posture, a calculation to preserve his legislative majority and grip on power before new voices in the political arena emerge and potentially capture the imagination of the public.
Q2: Are there new voices challenging Abe?
A2: The opposition Democratic Party (DP), currently led by former foreign minister Seiji Maehara, registers less than 10 percent approval in most public opinion polls but can be expected to seize on recent political scandals (namely allegations of favoritism against Abe) that precipitated a rapid decline in Abe’s public approval rating this past summer. (Opposition leaders have denounced Abe’s decision to call a snap election as a way for him to avoid answering questions about the scandals in the Diet.) The governor of Tokyo, Yuriko Koike, who handily defeated the local chapter of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in a gubernatorial election this past July, just announced plans to form and lead a new national party, Party of Hope, and nurture a new generation of leaders dedicated to political reform. (She said she will continue to serve as governor while building this new party.) It is too early to determine how this fledgling party might fare in the next election, but Koike has clearly positioned herself to counter Abe in the national policy debate. And while Abe tries to extend his tenure as prime minister, LDP lawmaker Shigeru Ishiba, one of the candidates preparing to succeed him as LDP president, has recently criticized Abe on issues such as defense policy and Abe’s plans to revise the constitution. None of these forces currently pose an existential threat to Abe, but his objective is to mute the “post-Abe” narrative and recapture control of the national conversation by focusing on the central pillars of his policy agenda.
Q3: What are the key themes for this election campaign?
A3: Economic policy should feature prominently. Abe postponed a planned increase in the consumption tax prior to the last snap election in 2014 but is now committed to a hike from 8 to 10 percent in 2019. However, instead of using all the proceeds to reduce public debt, Abe now plans to divert some of the increased tax revenue to support education and care for the elderly and announced an $18 billion economic package to that end. This could revive a debate about the importance of economic stimulus versus fiscal consolidation, but the opposition has thus far struggled to articulate an alternative to Abe’s economic agenda. Building on recent data suggesting the Japanese economy grew at an annualized rate of 4 percent in the second quarter of this year, Abe can be expected to reiterate his commitment to a three-pronged growth strategy (dubbed “Abenomics”) centered on monetary easing, fiscal stimulus, and structural reform. Abe will also stress national security during the campaign and today reiterated his commitment to coordinate a response to North Korea’s provocations. He will also likely emphasize his government’s efforts to strengthen Japan’s defense capabilities and the security alliance with the United States in an increasingly challenging security environment. Earlier this year, Abe announced plans to revise the constitution by 2020 to clarify the role of Japan’s self-defense forces but today simply stated that the specific language will be debated within the LDP, rendering the timeline for this legislative priority uncertain. (The constitution can only be revised with two-thirds majority support in both houses and majority support in a public referendum. Abe’s apparent willingness to put the ruling coalition’s two-thirds majority threshold at risk in a snap election suggests constitutional revision could become more of a long-term prospect.) In short, Abe will double down on economic growth and national security, the core pillars of his policy agenda, with the hope that the public will give him more time to realize his vision in the absence of clear near-term alternatives.
Q4: Are Japan’s political winds shifting?
A4: Abe’s more favorable approval ratings of late could help establish momentum heading into the election, and the LDP has a sizeable lead in most public opinion polls. But many voters continue to declare themselves unaffiliated or undecided, introducing an element of uncertainty as the campaign kicks off. And a survey published today by Nikkei Shimbun points out that a majority of the public disapproves of Abe’s decision to call a snap election, perhaps signaling an uphill battle to secure a mandate from the voters. Abe has cleared political hurdles in the past by honing a crisp campaign message that can crowd out other voices, a skill that should be on full display in the weeks ahead as he tries to prove that this calculated risk was worth taking.
Nicholas Szechenyi serves as senior fellow and deputy director of the Japan Chair at CSIS.