WALTER HAMILTON. Big changes mean more of the same in Japanese election

Oct 13, 2017

Early signs of trouble for the Abe government in Japan have seemingly evaporated under the more intense heat of election campaigning, and “more of the same” is now the likely outcome of the 22 October poll.

Since I last posted on the outlook for Japanese politics much has changed. An update is required.

Campaigning for the 22 October lower house election officially began on Tuesday (10 October). The latest opinion surveys suggest the ruling Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito coalition led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will be comfortably returned to office.

One telephone poll, taken by the Kyodo news agency, has the coalition winning 300 of the 465 seats, with the LDP achieving more than a simple majority of 233 in its own right. Similar findings have emerged from a survey taken by the Nihon Keizai Shimbun.

As I said, a lot has happened in a short time, given that many pundits (including yours truly) had foreseen serious difficulties ahead for the Abe government. This assessment was based on early strong public support for a new political grouping, the Party of Hope, established by the female governor of Tokyo (and former LDP minister) Yuriko Koike.

According to the latest surveys, however, the Party of Hope may pick up only about 60 seats, while another new grouping, the Constitutional Democratic Party, is expected to win around 30 seats.

The explanation for the LDP’s strong position seems to rest almost entirely on the fact that, while the new opposition parties have been scrambling to find candidates and work out campaign strategies, the ruling coalition has remained a stable and well-organised force. Having said this, it is not impossible for the situation to shift again before polling day.  In the Kyodo survey, for instance, more than half of respondents said they had not decided whom to support in single-seat districts (which elect 289 of the 465 lower house seats).

Both the Party of Hope (on the right of the political spectrum) and the Constitutional Democratic Party (on the left) picked up members from the defunct Democratic Party of Japan, which held government as recently as five years ago. The splintering of the Democratic Party, within hours of the election being called, conveyed an impression of disorder that the electorate now seems to associate with its successors.

In addition, there has been a sharp reversal of sentiment away from Yuriko Koike herself. The Japanese news media, which are largely pro-LDP and less forgiving of female politicians than male ones, have played up claims that she is arrogant and manipulative. Critics say she is more intent on appealing to voters with nice-sounding phrases than committing to a clear program of government. Furthermore, her decision not to stand in the election––but instead hold onto her job as Tokyo governor––has left the Party of Hope without a candidate for prime minister directly challenging Abe.

Philosophically there is little to distinguish between the two conservatives, apart from their rhetoric. Both Koike and Abe support constitutional revision to formalize the status of Japan’s defense forces, and policy differences are mostly at the margins. Signs of improvement in the economy––some GDP growth, albeit moderate––have also cushioned popular reaction against the Abe government.

The electorate, jaded by the mushroom-like appearance of new political entities at every dawn, is apparently “not for turning” the government out.

Abe has set the low benchmark of success of a “simple majority” for the ruling coalition, implicitly conceding a loss of 50-60 seats in the election. Anything worse than that would call into question his decision to go to the polls a year early. At this point, however, the LDP is doing what it does best: rallying around its leader, getting the troops into the trenches, holding tightly to the reins of public opinion, using the mainstream news media, and minimizing mistakes. No other Japanese political party since the war has been as successful at managing election campaigns as the LDP.

Walter Hamilton reported from Japan for the ABC for eleven years.

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