Walter Hamilton. Japanese election.

Dec 13, 2014

Four more years of…

Oh, by the way, Japan is having a national election on Sunday. Has anyone told the Japanese?

Some are calling it the “Seinfeld election”––the election about nothing. Which probably suits Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who called it two years early, with no apparent justification. Others have cynically observed that some in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) reckon a disillusioned electorate is easier to govern.

After 10 December, when Japan’s new Designated Secrets Law came into effect––locking up “sensitive” information for 60 years and threatening to lock up any leaking public servant for 10 years (and 5 years for any journalist who encourages a leak)––“disillusioned” took a giant backward step towards “uninformed”.

Just for good measure, the LDP sent out letters to the country’s main media organisations, as the campaign got underway, demanding “fair” election coverage––by which it meant they should not give emphasis to any one person or any one issue. Yes, this was always meant to be an election about nothing.

So is there nothing about which Japanese should be anxious, should be demanding answers? What about the fact that after two years of “Abenomics”, that wonder cure, the economy is now in recession? What about the moves to bring nuclear power reactors back on-line, when 70 percent of the population opposes the use of nuclear energy? What about the further planned increase in the defence budget, the third year in a row, at a time of massive budget deficits? What about the failure of the leadership to make significant progress in repairing Japan’s dire relations with China and South Korea? What about the corrosive effects of the widespread apathy eating up the Japanese electorate?

Take one issue: nuclear power. A large stab of Japan, around the stricken Fukushima Daiichi power plants, remains  uninhabitable because of the disaster nearly four years ago. Mothers across the land have to worry daily about sourcing food for their children, which they hope will not be contaminated. The enormous costs of the radiation clean up silently mount up for future generations to pay; and the piles of contaminated soil and rubbish fester away in a thousand forgotten corners. And yet, in 60 speeches during this election campaign, Prime Minister Abe has not once directly mentioned––nor been required to mention––the nuclear issue.

The opposition Democratic Party of Japan (the ruling party when the Fukushima disaster occurred) has likewise passed over the issue because it relies on support from unions whose membership embraces the electric power industry.

Many commentators believe that Shinzo Abe called the election now because conditions in Japan are likely to get worse next year. According to the latest data, real wages in the September quarter fell by 3% compared with a year ago. The gross domestic product (GDP) has contracted in the past two quarters––despite the biggest monetary and fiscal stimulus ever.

So, how is the ruling party likely to fare in this unpromising climate? If opinion polls can be trusted, the LDP and its coalition partner, the New Komeito, will actually increase their hold on power by winning more than two-thirds of the lower house seats in the Diet. Come again? Yes, on the back of a depressingly low voter turnout, Mr Abe will convert the policy vacuum into a fresh, unassailable mandate.

How will he use this mandate? On past performance, he will demand even greater loyalty and co-operation from his party and from Japan’s mass media; he will intimidate opponents, now armed with tough new laws, such as the Secrecy Act; he will press on with an economic program that so far has produced, even by the most generous measures, meagre results.

The Prime Minister says he needed to call a fresh election to get the public’s approval for his economic policies, specifically a decision to postpone the next scheduled consumption tax increase. This always sounded like a lame excuse.

Mr Abe has spoken often about the need for broad-ranging reform, including lowering the corporate tax rate, opening up the labour market to foreign workers, expanding childcare to encourage more women into the workforce and liberalizing the agricultural sector. Holding an election puts back any reform program by at least 6-12 months. He could have acted to address all these issues head on, without an election, and yet he dithered. Most Japanese still don’t know why they are going to the polls on Sunday. Half of them won’t even bother.

The opposition parties, taken by surprise, have made no headway during the campaign. The DPJ may increase its number of seats to around 70 in the 475-seat chamber, but that will still be less than a quarter of what the LDP expects to win. Several other opposition parties––that are mainly creaky vehicles for the unfulfilled ambitions of washed-up ex-LDP politicians––will probably lose ground. On the other hand, in this strange scenario, the Japan Communist Party is expected to double its representation, off a small base, by virtue of standing for something when all else seems mere opportunism. Don’t blink or you’ll miss it.

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

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