Inside Shinzo Abe's political 'landslide'

Long-time Japan watcher Gerald Curtis sums election up in one word – stability, following years of wild swings in politics

Inside Shinzo Abe's political 'landslide'

World Bulletin/News Desk

Most Japanese newspapers trumpeted Monday the government’s big election win the day before as a landslide of historic proportions. But it may be more accurate to say that the voters moved the goal posts only by a few centimeters.

It is true that the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its longtime coalition partner New Komeito accumulated a super majority of 326 of the 475 seats in the House of Representatives.

But the LDP actually lost three seats it held before the election, while the Komeito increased its standing by four for a net gain of one.

Like a lot of people in Japan, the LDP had been seduced by polls that showed it gaining 300 plus seats on its own. As it happened, it did not quite make that benchmark, but the returns obviously pleased Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who had gambled on a snap election two years before one was constitutionally required.

This election had been interpreted by many as a poll without a good reason, and the historically low turnout of 53 percent strongly suggested that nearly half of the electorate did not believe that the issues or candidate choices were compelling enough to motivate them to vote.

In trying to analyze the election in all its manifold parts, Gerald Curtis, professor of political science at Columbia University and a long-time Japan watcher, summed the election up in one word: stability.

For many people, “The worst thing about having Abe as prime minister is not having him as prime minister,” he said.

In recent years, Japanese politics has been characterized by wild swings and prime ministers who resigned barely after one year. First the LDP wins big, then the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) wipes that majority out in its own big win, only to find its majority obliterated then by the LDP.

Curtis also described the election as being a vote of no confidence in the opposition, which included besides the DPJ six other smaller parties. “They couldn’t figure out what they wanted and what they opposed.”

Abe shrewdly calculated that the DPJ was still too badly organized after its shellacking in the 2012 election to pose a major obstacle. Surprised like everybody else by Abe’s call for a snap election, the Democrats did not have time to recruit and field enough candidates to dent the LDP steamroller.

Yet the party did manage to increase its standing in parliament from 57 to 70 seats. It was probably the most realistic outcome it could have imagined, although for public consumption, they anticipated gaining 100 seats. One of the losing DPJ candidates was the party leader himself, Banri Kaieda.

Probably the only opposition party to have a good night was the Japanese Communist Party, which nearly tripled its representation in parliament to 23 seats. This outcome was, of course, mostly a curiosity as the communists have nowhere near enough seats to influence policy.

One exception might be in Okinawa, where the communist candidate actually prevailed in a single-seat district for the first time in 18 years.

The LDP failed to win any of the island’s four seats, even the most conservative one, against a headwind of island opposition to the stationing of American troops there. This could complicate Abe’s relations with Washington going forward.

In addition to the general overview, there were in detail the inevitable personal triumphs and defeats. Yuko Obuchi, who was forced to resign as minister of industry over campaign financing irregularities easily retained her seat.

Naoto Kan, who served as prime minister in the old DPJ government and was premier at the time of the Great East Asia Earthquake and tsunami, lost his Tokyo seat, while the arch-conservative former four-term governor of Tokyo, 82-year-old Shintaro Ishihara, was retired by the voters.

Abe himself described his election victory as a mandate to persist with his economic policy called after him “Abenomics.” But Curtis noted that Abe himself had little to say during the campaign on this subject or any other policy issues, such as joining the Trans-Pacific Trading Partnership.

“I don’t see much support for Abe’s policies, but I don’t see much opposition either,” said Curtis. “Don’t look for real economic reforms; we’ll see more of the same.”

Nevertheless, in the aftermath of the voting, the government was hinting at a fresh push for Abenomics, suggesting that the government might soon tackle liberalizing the labor market to make it easier to hire – and fire - workers.

Through his victory, Abe has given himself four more years in office and certainly assured his re-election as LDP president in the September party congress, a prerequisite for being premier. The pertinent question, said Curtis, is how well he wears with the public over those years.

During this time he will have to deal with many controversial issues, such as the revival of the nuclear power industry and closer military alliances with allies and friendly countries.

Another thing to watch for will be whether Abe reverts to the “old Abe” and use his huge majority to advance his own pet projects, such as revising the constitution, written by American occupiers shortly after the end of World War II.

Next year marking the 70th anniversary of the war’s end may provide more temptations for Abe to express his deeply conservative views on the war and its aftermath, rendering it possible for him to perhaps say or do controversial things, such as revisiting the Yasukuni Shrine, which antagonizes China and South Korea and complicates his diplomacy with Washington.

Güncelleme Tarihi: 15 Aralık 2014, 13:00
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