Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has taken a political gamble by dissolving the lower house of parliament on Sept 28 to call a snap election on Oct 22.
In so doing, he wants to take advantage of the country’s weak opposition parties. Abe’s sudden announcement caught his rivals unprepared, except for the popular Tokyo governor, Yuriko Koike.
As the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) refused to support her in the 2016 race for Tokyo governor, Koike defied the party. Her Tokyo Citizens First party won a sweeping victory in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election on July 2, dethroning the LDP by becoming the largest party in the assembly.
Throwing down the gauntlet to the LDP again, Koike established a new “reformist, conservative” Party of Hope late last month for the upcoming general election.
The Democratic Party, which was Japan’s largest opposition party, effectively disbanded when its leader attempted to have all its members run in the election on the Party of Hope’s ticket.
Koike, however, turned down the Democratic Party’s liberal members, enrolling its conservatives who agree with her policies on amending Japan’s constitution and the security legislation that allows for an expanded role overseas for the country’s Self-Defense Forces.
Several Democratic Party heavyweights, such as former prime minister Yoshihiko Noda, a self-proclaimed “moderate conservative”, have decided to run as independents.
Meanwhile, Yukio Edano, the Democrats’ left-leaning deputy president, formed a new Constitutional Democratic Party on Oct 2 to attract liberal votes in the general poll. The party will “protect constitutionalism, democracy, liberal society and citizens’ livelihoods”, Edano said, asking voters for “the power to put a stop to the excesses” of the Abe administration.
So, now there is the LDP with its junior coalition partner Komeito on one side and seven opposition parties and independent candidates on the other.
Though all aim to topple the LDP-Komeito coalition, the opposition parties can hardly unite as one, despite having some policies in common.
On the conservative side of the opposition camp, the Party of Hope, the Japan Innovation Party, the Liberal Party and the Party for Japanese Kokoro support constitutional change.
On the left side, the Constitutional Democratic Party, the Japan Communist Party and Social Democratic Party want to keep the constitution intact and call for abolishing the security legislation that took effect last year.
But among the opposition leaders, there have been talks focused on coordination. In a reciprocal agreement, Koike said her new party will not contest seats in Osaka prefecture, to help candidates from the Japan Innovation Party headed by the Osaka governor. In return, Osaka Governor Ichiro Matsui’s party will not field candidates in Tokyo races, to boost the chances of Koike’s Party of Hope.
A total of 465 seats will be up for grabs in the Oct 22 election. The ruling coalition of the LDP and Komeito party held more than 300 seats in the lower house before the chamber was dissolved.
The race is likely a three-way battle between the LDP, Koike’s party — the two are conservative in nature — and Edano’s liberal force.
A Kyodo News poll showed that the LDP has the highest support rating ahead of the election at 24.1 percent, more than nine points ahead of Koike’s Party of Hope. But the disapproval rating for the Abe cabinet stood at 46.2 percent, with the approval rate at 40.6 percent. And 45.9 percent chose Abe for prime minister, with 33 percent backing Koike.
The news that Japan’s economy is picking up pace may help the ruling coalition. The Bank of Japan’s tankan — a closely watched quarterly survey of more than 10,000 companies — showed that confidence among Japan’s biggest manufacturers has jumped to its highest level in a decade.
Japan’s economy expanded in the April-June period, capping six straight quarters of gains in its longest winning streak in more than 10 years.
The LDP has come up with a campaign platform pledging that the party will aim to make the first-ever amendment to the constitution “on the basis of sufficient debate inside and outside the party” on such issues as including the Self-Defense Forces in the charter. It also wants to have the consumption tax rate raised in 2019 as planned and increase financial input in education and child-rearing support.
The opposition parties have no clear campaign pledges so far.
The Democratic Party of Japan swept to victory in a 2009 election, buoyed by public anger over corruption in the long-ruling LDP and promising to prioritize investment in people over infrastructure.
But its administration was marred by errors, as well as the 2011 tsunami and nuclear crisis. After a rapid series of changes in leadership, the Democrats lost power to Abe’s LDP in December 2012.
Since then, the party has changed leaders several times, but failed to restore public confidence.
But the fledgling Constitutional Democratic Party attracted more than 80,000 followers on Twitter in less than two days, drawing a lot of attention. The LDP has 110,000 followers, and the Party of Hope only slightly more than 2,700.
Abe, though becoming vulnerable after a string of political scandals, has met with no seriously strong resistance during his five-year reign. No general election is needed to be held until late 2018.
Analysts have compared his decision to British Prime Minister Theresa May’s call for a snap election in June, which saw her Conservative Party lose its overall majority. But Abe cannot wait and give Koike more time to broaden her support base and become an even bigger threat.
Koike has said her party is intent on winning a majority of the seats in the lower house.
If she wants to become Japan’s first female prime minister, she has to run for a seat in the more powerful chamber by resigning as Tokyo’s governor. But such a political gamble does invite a potential backlash from voters. Candidates must register on Oct 10.
Abe’s decision to call a snap election has made a big splash in Japan’s political dynamics.
The author is China Daily’s bureau chief in Tokyo.