Japanese Voters Give Shinzo Abe A Big Win In Snap Elections
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s gamble to call early elections appears to have paid off big time:
TOKYO — Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan appeared to be on track to win a majority in parliamentary elections for his party on Sunday, NHK, the public broadcaster projected, based on exit polls. The preliminary results fueled his hopes of revising the nation’s pacifist Constitution.
Early projections by NHK suggested that Mr. Abe’s governing Liberal Democratic Party and its allies had captured two-thirds of the seats in the lower house of Parliament.
The apparent victory came despite public opinion polls showing lukewarm support for the prime minister’s policies and competition from a party founded by Tokyo’s popular governor, Yuriko Koike, as well as another new center-left party.
For Mr. Abe, the results were a vindication of his strategy to call a snap election a year earlier than expected, and they raise the possibility that he would move swiftly to change the Constitution to make explicit the legality of the Self-Defense Forces, as Japan’s military is known.
The Constitution, in place since 1947, calls for the renunciation of war, and Mr. Abe said in May that it should be amended to remove any doubt about the military’s legitimacy.
Amending the Constitution requires the support of two-thirds of both houses of Parliament. Mr. Abe’s party and its allies had those numbers before Sunday’s elections, but the prime minister’s political woes earlier this year, along with public doubt about a constitutional change, raised the possibility that he would lose the supermajority in the lower house.
The victory on Sunday could also embolden Mr. Abe to run next year for a third term as leader of the Liberal Democrats, which could make him Japan’s longest-serving prime minister.
The results were a setback for Ms. Koike, who started her new party, Kibou no To, or Party of Hope, with great fanfare just hours before Mr. Abe called the early election last month. But after she decided not to run for office, voters lost interest.
Analysts said Mr. Abe’s victory did not represent an endorsement of his platform so much as a lack of strong alternatives.
“The story of this election, it would seem, is Abe didn’t so much win it as the opposition just was totally unprepared,” said Jeff Kingston, the director of Asian studies at Temple University in Tokyo.
Mr. Abe’s public approval ratings dipped below 30 percent over the summer as he was dogged by a series of scandals, and opinion polls taken during the campaign found that more voters disapproved of Mr. Abe’s hawkish strategy toward North Korea than approved of it.
“There is an Abe conundrum,” Professor Kingston said. “How does a guy who is basically unpopular with voters, whose policies are not particularly popular, who doesn’t get high marks for leadership, and yet he keeps winning in elections?”
While I’m not going to claim any expertise on Japanese politics, from the coverage of the campaign and the election results that I’ve been able to follow it seems clear that Abe’s big win has more to do with the lack of a strong opposition party than with an explicit endorsement of his policies. As The New York Times article quoted above notes, Abe’s personal popularity in Japan is not particularly high, but he benefited from the fact that the opposition is weak and divided, something strongly indicated by the fact that the political party that led by his primary opponent in the election was formed only a short time before elections were called, a fact that Abe likely was exploiting when he called new elections more than a year earlier than necessary at a time when the opposition wasn’t close being ready to take on the ruling party. An additional factor appears to be that Abe’s party, the Liberal Democratic Party, has been the majority of the time since Japan has returned civilian rule after World War II and the adoption of the new Constitution. During that seventy year period, the LDP has been in power for all but five years, once in the nineties from 1993-1996 and once since 2000 during the period from 2009-2012. (Source) Additionally, Abe himself now ranks as the fifth longest-serving Prime Minister in Japanese history, and his tenure ranks as the third longest since the end of World War Two. (Source) If he wins re-election as party leader next year, which seems likely given the outcome of these elections, and serves until the next round of elections, he’ll move even further up on this list. Given this and the lack of any apparent crises for the party in power, it’s not entirely surprising that Abe and his party won re-election.
The most interesting aspect of the outcome of this election, of course, concerns the impact it could have on Japanese foreign and military policy, especially with regard to the recent uptick in tensions on the Korean Peninsula. As noted above, Abe has long advocated a formalization of the role of Japan’s Self-Defense Force in the Japanese Constitution, which has banned an active military ever since it was written under American supervision after the end of the Second World War. Much has changed in that time, of course, and while Asian nations remain wary of the idea of a rearmed or more assertive Japan, the looming threat of an even more potent threat from Pyongyang seems to have caused at least some of those feelings to wane. Additionally, the fact that the DPRK’s leader Kim Jong Un has made explicit threats against the American military bases in Japan and civilian area in Japan. Additionally, several of the missile tests that the North Koreans have fired have flown toward Japan, or in a few cases right over, Japanese airspace. This reminder of the potential threat that the DPRK poses to the region likely played a role in the minds of many voters who decided to stick with the devil they know even if they don’t like him all that much.