When Is a Blowout Not a Blowout?

Why the Japanese prime minister’s big election victory only affords him a short honeymoon.

Japanese Prime Minister and ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) president Shinzo Abe waves at the party headquarters in Tokyo on December 14, 2014. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe won comfortable re-election December 14 in a snap poll he had billed as a referendum on his economic policies after early success faded into a recession. AFP PHOTO / TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA (Photo credit should read TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP/Getty Images)

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition has emerged from the Dec. 14 general election with its lower house supermajority intact. But is it really a big victory? Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) won 291 seats. Together with its coalition partner, Komeito, which won 35 seats, the government now has 326 seats, securing a two-thirds majority in the Diet’s most powerful chamber and ensuring it control of the legislative process.

But the government’s victory was a foregone conclusion. The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), the leading opposition, practically conceded the election when it nominated far fewer candidates than needed to win a majority. And despite the appearance of a historic triumph, this election did not strengthen Abe’s leadership.

First, the LDP’s 291-seat victory fell short of expectations. Despite forecasts that uniformly suggested that Abe’s LDP would win more than 300 seats, the LDP actually lost four seats in the 475-seat lower house. This suggests that Abe failed to draw significant numbers of new voters to support his party.

Instead, the election resulted in a marginal gain for Abe’s junior coalition partner, Komeito — a centrist party that boasts of its role as a “brake” on Abe and the LDP. While Komeito’s additional four seats do not themselves dramatically increase the party’s power relative to the LDP, Komeito still holds the balance of power in the Diet’s upper house. Moreover, the fall of several right-wing opposition parties has reduced Abe’s leverage over Komeito — since he cannot credibly threaten to join with a different coalition partner. Thus, the impending battle within Abe’s coalition over revisions to national security laws will be all the more challenging.

Komeito is not the only headwind that Abe faces from within his ruling coalition. Indeed, the election itself was triggered by tensions between Abe and the LDP over taxes and fiscal policy. While Abe’s victory may enable him to get his way on the most pressing issue — how much to cut corporate taxes in 2015 — he will still have to contend with senior LDP members regarding legislation to postpone the consumption tax. It is also likely that Abe will face a bruising battle with his own party over agricultural reform and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an ambitious trade pact involving Japan, the United States, Australia, and nine other countries. Meanwhile, Japan’s leading agricultural lobby, JA-Zenchu, used the electoral campaign to cement its ties with the LDP, raising the costs to Abe of winning his party’s support for reforms.

While Abe may win these fights, his electoral victory by no means guarantees it. And after having called a snap election, Abe has already used one of the main tools for disciplining his party’s members — threatening to call an election and withholding nominations for opponents can bring recalcitrant members to heel. Abe now has few remaining tools to induce LDP parliamentarians to cooperate.

The electoral victory also confirmed that the Japanese are uncertain about Abenomics, the prime minister’s mix of monetary stimulus, fiscal stimulus, and structural reform. Despite the government’s proclamation that the election was a referendum on Abenomics, the returns were not necessarily votes of confidence. Turnout was the lowest in Japan’s postwar history: Only 52.66 percent of Japanese voted, nearly 7 percentage points lower than 2012’s previous record low. Although low turnout in some areas was likely the result of heavy snowfall across much of northern Japan, the government’s data suggests that voter turnout fell throughout the country, with some of the steepest drops in balmy western Japan.

The low turnout likely reflected both dissatisfaction with Abenomics and displeasure with the alternatives offered by opposition parties. A poll conducted by the newspaper Mainichi Shimbun on Dec. 9 and 10 found that 70 percent of voters believed that Abenomics had not improved the economy — but also found that 54 percent of voters who said they were going to vote for the LDP did not believe that it had resulted in a healthier economy. Other polls conducted during the 12-day-long campaign confirmed that most voters did not think that Abenomics has succeeded.

Perhaps the clearest sign that the vote should not be interpreted as an endorsement of Abenomics is the performance of the Japanese Communist Party (JCP), which increased its number of seats from eight to 21. As the most vocal opponent of the prime minister’s agenda, the JCP profited from voter anger not only at Abe, but at the ineffectual response of the DPJ and other opposition parties to the government’s policies. While the JCP will have little impact on government policies, the party will be able to play a more visible role as the Abe government’s most vocal critic.

It’s likely that Abe’s post-election honeymoon will be brief. And depending on how the economy performs, Abe’s approval ratings may continue to fall, limiting his ability to force the ruling coalition to follow his lead.

With a crowded agenda over the next six months, Abe will need all the political capital he can get. His government still needs to respond to the post-tax-hike recession and the sharp drop in the yen’s value after the Bank of Japan’s Oct. 31 stimulus announcement. It has to formulate a new budget before the April 1 start of the fiscal year and devise a new fiscal consolidation plan to formalize the decision to delay the 2 percentage-point consumption tax increase that had been scheduled for October 2015. In January, the government needs to decide whether to proceed with restarting two nuclear reactors.

And there’s more. During the latter half of the Diet session that will likely run from late January to June, the government plans to pursue agricultural reform and amend national security legislation to bring it in line with the new constitutional interpretation on collective self-defense. In April, the ruling parties will also face another electoral test in nationwide local elections, which could provide voters with another opportunity to register their disapproval with the government’s policies. After running this gantlet, Abe’s term as LDP president ends in September 2015. Should his support continue to fall and if the economy continues to underperform, it is possible that he will face a strong challenger in the party election.

Although Abe may have just bought his ruling coalition another four years before lower house members have to face the voters again (though half of the upper house will face election in 2016), he might not survive long enough to contest another election. After all, four of the last six prime ministers were forced from office by their parties after being abandoned by the public — this includes Abe himself, in 2007. With the public uncertain about Abe and his economic program; with his ruling coalition large, unwieldy, and prone to challenging prime ministers; and with Japan’s economy heading in the wrong direction, things may only get harder.


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