Friday, November 3, 2017

October Election No Mandate for Abe

By William Brooks, SAIS, Johns Hopkins Fellow and APP Senior Fellow

Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) walked away with an easy win in the October 22 general election. The LDP, with its coalition partner the Komeito, attained a two-thirds majority (313) in the House of Representatives (Lower House). This “landslide victory,” however, should not be interpreted as a mandate for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – who is now likely to stay in power until 2021. He is unlikely to implement the most controversial part of his policy agenda, that of amending Article 9 of Japan’s peace Constitution. Public and media opinion are not necessarily on his side, and the LDP arguably won because the opposition was poorly organized and unprepared.

Abe’s Calling Snap Election Had Little to Do with Policy

Prime Minister Abe cited the North Korean threat, which he deemed a “national crisis,” and demographic issues as his reasons for dissolving the Lower House and calling a snap election. In reality, his motive was purely political. Policy debates played a minor role in the election campaign. Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso even joked after the election that the LDP won “thanks to North Korea,” no doubt knowing that such was not the case.

Abe used the election to shore up his base within the LDP. It had eroded due to plummeting approval rates brought on by two personal money scandals and his party’s ignominious loss in the July Tokyo assembly election. The Kochikai faction in the LDP was getting set to run former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida in the party head election next year to prevent Abe from winning another three years as president and thus prime minister.

Abe also worried about the new opposition party led by Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike and her Party of Hope [PH] (the “Koike boom”). He was keenly aware that if the general election came a year later as scheduled, opposition parties could by then form a possibly undefeatable united front. An election took advantage of a still weak, fragmented, and ill-prepared opposition.

“Balkanization” of Opposition Forces
Democratic Party (DP) head Seiji Maehara’s sudden dissolution of his party, ostensibly to create a larger opposition party by joining the Party of Hope, failed. Koike, in a major tactical mistake, refused to accept the DP’s liberal wing. As a result, the progressives quickly organized the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ) to run candidates in the election. Other DP members unwilling to join either side formed an unaffiliated group led by former Foreign Minister and DPJ president Katsuya Okada.

The collapsing DP in short split the opposition camp into conservative and liberal groups that ended up fighting each other in the election. Such confusion may have convinced voters to stay home, since the turnout rate in the election was only 55.6%, the second lowest in postwar history (the lowest being in the last Lower House election in 2014).

The LDP’s win still seems odd because the pre-election polls showed Abe’s lack of popularity, and a majority of the public not favoring him staying on as prime minister after the election. Reports of the LDP candidates campaigning across the country found no outpouring of support for Abe, as well. And yet, the LDP won handily. Why? The poor turnout as potentially anti-LDP voters stayed home must be linked also to the opposition camp’s disarray.

The conservative Party of Hope led by Koike, who did not run for a Diet seat, fizzled. It backed 235 candidates (trying to achieve a majority or 233 seats) but won only 50 seats. It turned out also that the popularity of Koike was primarily a Tokyo phenomenon. But even Koike’s choice to head PH, Masaru Wakasa, lost his seat in Tokyo’s District 10.

The liberal CDPJ, backed by Rengo, the labor union federation, outpaced PH to take 55 seats, emerging as the largest opposition party in the Lower House. The CDPJ, which campaigned on a platform of protecting the Constitution from revision and scrapping all nuclear power, not only captured the liberal vote (perhaps the last gasp of that dying movement), it also drained centrist votes from the Komeito, which lost in Kanagawa, ending up with 34 seats. The biggest loser in the election, though, was the Japanese Communist Party (JCP), which lost half its seats. Apparently, the protest votes that used to go to the JCP went to the CDPJ this time.

LDP Wins by Standing Still

The LDP won 284 seats in the election, but this is the same number it had before the election. In fact, the LDP has not attracted more votes in any election since 2005. The party’s absolute ratio of votes (ratio of votes to the total number of voters; not the turnout rate) in the latest election was 25.2%, about the same level as in 2009, when it lost to the DPJ. The party’s strength has been in the 22-25% range since 2005, when then Prime Minister Koizumi successfully attracted millions of unaffiliated voters to bring the ratio to 32% (and win 296 seats for the LDP).

Polls regularly show that between 40-50% of voters are unaffiliated (mutohasou) and able to swing elections, as in 2005 and 2009, when they did decide to vote. Strong issues in the campaign can mobilize them, but the low turnout in this election showed that a large number of unaffiliated voters were disinterested and stayed home.

Another way of looking at the election is the tally of votes in the proportional representation blocs, in which people vote for a party not a candidate. The CDPJ won about 11.07 million votes, and the PH won 9.66 million votes – a combined total of 20.73 million votes. The total of votes won by the LDP in the proportional representation blocs was 18.52 million votes, or about 2 million votes less than that of the two opposition parties combined. The conclusion reached is that the LDP owes much of its victory to the split in the opposition camp.

The results also show that the three way battles in most districts among the LDP, CDPJ, and PH favored the LDP. In 226 of the 289 single-seat districts, a single ruling coalition candidate took on multiple candidates from the opposition camp. The ruling coalition candidates won 183 of the 226 districts or more than 80%. A united front candidate from the opposition camp would likely have changed the results significantly.

Abe Has No Mandate for Constitutional Reform
Assuming that he will serve as Prime Minister until 2021, Abe now plans to move decidedly toward amending the Constitution, based on his own ideas and on proposals that the LDP is now preparing. For example, Abe would like a clause added to Article 9 to specify the legitimacy of the Self-Defense Forces.

He is counting on his popularity to recover, and indeed a Yomiuri poll released on October 25 showed the Abe Cabinet’s support rate is up 11 points to 52% from only two weeks earlier. But an Asahi poll on the same day has the support rate only up four points from a week earlier to 42%, with the non-support rate down a point to 39%. Moreover, asked about Abe’s desire to amend Article 9, 45% were negative and only 36 were positive. At best, the nation is split on amending the Constitution in the way that the LDP may want, and if that wariness continues, a future referendum to approve the Diet’s changes could fail.

In the Diet, although most LDP members are eager to amend the Constitution, the Komeito, which gives the ruling coalition the two-thirds majority needed to pass Constitutional changes, remains reluctant to tamper with Article 9. Komeito has the capability to put the brakes to Abe’s drive to reshape the Constitution.

The media is also skeptical. Editorials after the election, liberal and conservative alike, rejected that Abe had a mandate. The editorials were wary of Abe and the LDP having too much power in the Diet now and admonished the Prime Minister to “implement politics humbly” and take a cautious approach. They encouraged the administration and the LDP to “listen to the people’s voice” and to build a consensus with the opposition on contentious issues.

The LDP win is attributed to the “missteps of the opposition.” The voters and the press are concerned that he will be “high-handed” on constitutional revision or other issues with his Diet super majority. Yet, the election made Abe appear the more the canny politician than the reckless crusader. He knows will have to proceed cautiously with as monumental a task as changing Japan’s revered Constitution. After all Abe is a conservative in a country that does not like change.

Bill Brooks and Kent Calder, SAIS, Johns Hopkins, Washington, DC, October 25, 2017
Election Discussion

No comments:

Post a Comment

Intelligent comments and additional information welcome. We are otherwise selective.