WALTER HAMILTON. When Nothing Happened in Japan

Oct 24, 2017

After Sunday’s election, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would be entitled to quote Mark Twain: ‘Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated’. Political death, that is. His ruling coalition threw back all challengers and retained the crucial two-thirds majority in the lower house required for a constitutional amendment.

 The prospects for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito coalition were already good when official campaigning got underway a fortnight ago, but they only got better after weather forecasters began tracking a typhoon headed for the Japanese main islands. Typhoon Lan disrupted voting in some remote parts of the country before making landfall at Shizuoka, southwest of Tokyo, in the early hours of Monday morning. Despite a record level of pre-polling, with voters anticipating Sunday’s bad weather, the overall turnout was a paltry 54%, the second lowest since the war. Low turnouts are generally thought to favour the LDP.

With a handful of results still outstanding, the conservative LDP-Komeito coalition has won at least 312 of the 465 lower house seats. The newly-formed centre-left Constitutional Democratic Party has at least 54 seats, making it the second biggest party––exceeding the 49 won by another new group, the right-leaning Party of Hope.

The order of second and third is significant because the Constitutional Democratic Party specifically opposes moves to amend the war-renouncing Article 9 of the constitution. The result is also a setback to the political ambitions of the Party of Hope’s leader, Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike.

Prime Minister Abe took a risk calling the snap election more than a year early. Although his gamble paid off handsomely, he may find it hard to claim a mandate for radical change given that only half the Japanese electorate participated in the poll. In his victory remarks, he claimed support for a ‘tough’ diplomatic approach to North Korea: hardly radical, and something few Japanese would argue with.

Those who bothered to vote chose the status quo largely, it seems, because they were offered little in the way of an alternative. Both the Constitutional Democratic Party and the Party of Hope had only a short time in which to select candidates and organize their campaigns, putting them at a severe tactical and financial disadvantage against the well-oiled LDP machine.

The disintegration of the former ruling Democratic Party, and the dispersal of its members to run as candidates for the new parties or as independents, gave off an odour of Opposition weakness and confusion that hung over the campaign and helped the ruling coalition. Abe also successfully exploited fears about North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons program. In these circumstances, voters chose to overlook the scandals and blunders that have dogged the government through most of this year.

The election result virtually ensures that Abe––assuming his health holds out––will be reelected as LDP president for another three-year term next September. ‘I will humbly face the victory and continue to work humbly and sincerely,’ he told NHK, the national broadcaster. His emphasis on humility, while culturally unexceptional, was an implicit acknowledgment of one of the factors behind the slump in his popularity earlier this year.

On the Opposition side, the only one who could claim a measure of success is Yukio Edano, leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party, which fielded 78 candidates and won at least 54 seats. Edano attracted large crowds to his street rallies, particularly in Tokyo, and by the time the next election rolls around his party will have had the opportunity to build a supporter base and groom a full list of candidates.

Worth noting is the high level of support for the Constitutional Democratic Party in proportional representation voting for the Tokyo district (under Japan’s hybrid system, candidates stand in single-seat constituencies and/or for seats allocated by proportional representation). According to NHK, the CDP attracted no fewer than 1.4 million votes (24%) in the capital compared to the LDP’s 1.8 million (31%).

Yuriko Koike, on the other hand, is being held responsible for the poor showing of her Party of Hope, which had, at its launch, seemed capable of mounting a serious challenge to the LDP. Ill-judged remarks by Koike during the campaign, which conveyed an impression of arrogance, and her decision not to run as a candidate for the Diet but, instead, keep her job as Tokyo governor are thought to be the main reasons for the party’s sharp reversal of fortunes. (The fact that Koike was in France on election day, fulfilling a prior commitment to attend a meeting of local government leaders, only served to emphasise her divided loyalties.)

Confounding (my and others) earlier predictions of something different emerging in Japanese politics, Sunday’s election has delivered more of the same. It’s as if nothing happened. A typhoon blew in and then blew itself out, leaving the skies clear for the LDP and Shinzo Abe.

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

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