Shinzo Abe Just Pulled a Theresa May

Japan's prime minister called an early election to strengthen his mandate — and gave an opening to a serious new challenger.

British Prime Minister Theresa May (L) shakes Shinzo Abe's (R) hand in Tokyo on August 31, 2017. (KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images)
British Prime Minister Theresa May (L) shakes Shinzo Abe's (R) hand in Tokyo on August 31, 2017. (KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images)

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has called a national election to face what he says is a growing threat from North Korea. But the election has created a new threat for Abe himself: an increasingly popular challenger who’s seizing her chance even as the existing opposition crumbles into oblivion.

Abe’s plan for a snap election, first hinted at in mid-September, started a game of political dominos. He made the formal announcement a week later on Sept. 25 — the same day the governor of Tokyo, rising star Yuriko Koike, had announced her own Party of Hope would challenge Abe’s long-dominant Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Koike, a former newscaster with an international background but a nationalist tinge reminiscent of Abe’s own, is setting the stage for an eventual run that could make her Japan’s first female prime minister.

The LDP’s control of postwar Japan has been nearly absolute, broken only by a short-lived coalition government of opposition parties in 1993-1994 and by the 2009 victory of the Democratic Party of Japan, which ruled till 2012. Despite a reorganization in 2016, the new Democratic Party failed to find any traction with voters, culminating in a series of ineffectual shakeups earlier this year that left it stuck at a measly 8 percent in the polls.

Abe’s announcement was the final blow. Three days after the election was called, the Democrats effectively fell apart when party leader Seiji Maehara, who had taken over just three weeks earlier, told his parliament members in the lower house to head for the lifeboats. The party will field no candidates in the Oct. 22 election, and Maehara will run as an independent. The Democrats’ lawmakers either need to also go it alone or seek to sign on with Koike’s group. Showing who has the upper hand, Koike has been conducting interviews to determine who exactly who she will accept into her fold.

Abe, meanwhile, is scrambling to justify an election most Japanese feel has no reason to happen. The reasons he gave were high-minded: the need to win a fresh mandate in the face of an increasingly belligerent North Korea and to justify a planned increase in the national sales tax to 10 percent from the current 8 percent in 2019 to use for social spending instead of to pay down debt. “We must not give in to North Korea’s threats. By gaining a mandate from the people with this election, I will forge ahead with strong diplomacy,” Abe said on national television. With its large U.S. military presence, Japan is a key potential target for North Korea, which has flown missiles over the northern island of Hokkaido twice this year.

But the decision appeared to have more to do with domestic opportunism than a North Korean threat, with Abe taking advantage of the war of words between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump and worries of a military conflict. After a summer beset by political scandals, Abe started to see his ratings rebound to around 45 percent. “Foreign crises are generally good for incumbents,” noted Robert Dujarric, director at the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University, Japan Campus. Abe no doubt also believed that the Democratic Party was in too much disarray to mount a serious campaign — and that Koike would not be ready to launch a party capable of challenging him in just a few weeks.

The latter mistake may prove fatal. “Abe’s miscalculation with the snap election indeed greatly helped Koike. The collapse of the Democratic Party was much less her doing than due to the severe pressure from the coming election at the worst of times for the party,” said Martin Schulz, senior research fellow at the Fujitsu Research Institute in Tokyo. Like British prime minister Theresa May — who called an early election earlier this year to take advantage of what she believed to be a weak opponent, only to end up losing her parliamentary majority — Abe’s political calculations may prove too clever by half.

Koike has demonstrated she is a formidable adversary. Her pivotal position in the election is the latest in a whirlwind journey that has already given her a firm grip on Tokyo, a city that accounts for 20 percent of the entire country’s GDP. Though Koike has been a member of five different parties in her career — and served as a government minister under Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party in various roles from 2003 to 2007 — she became governor in August 2016 with no party affiliation, handily defeating an LDP-backed opponent. She then effectively cleaned house by taking on the long-entrenched LDP group within the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly, taking control of the body in a July 2017 election with 49 of her 50 candidates winning seats.

The fall of the left-leaning Democrats leaves the race as a battle between two conservatives. Abe and Koike have few real policy differences. They have both taken a dim view of Japan’s apologizing in what are politely called here the “historical issues” of wartime forced prostitution in Korea and the massacre of civilians in Nanjing, China. Both also support the need for a greater regional and global role for Japan’s military. Under the postwar constitution, Japan renounces all use of military force to settle disputes, but this has not stopped it from creating a “self-defense force” that is one of the most advanced armies in the world.

The Party of Hope is so far mainly composed of Democratic Party defectors, including some high-profile ones such as former Environment Minister Goshi Hosono. Others are still expected to join, with the full slate of candidates to be announced by Oct. 10. But Koike, signaling her affinity for LDP-style policies, has made it clear that she would not automatically support former Democratic Party lawmakers in the race, weeding out those opposed to recently introduced security legislation.

“For all practical purposes, a Prime Minister Koike would just be the latest premier in a long line of LDP chief executives,” said Dujarric of Temple University.

Among Koike’s few real differences with the Abe government are her commitment to rescind a planned increase in the national sales tax in 2019 and her opposition to nuclear power following the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant disaster. Abe had previously postponed the tax increase but now plans to go ahead with using the additional revenue for education and day care, and he supports the continued use of nuclear power.

Koike has otherwise differentiated herself from Abe’s LDP by staking out a more populist (though non-angry) economic tone. Her most common refrain is that the government should meet the needs of the people. While this is a fairly nebulous rallying cry, Koike has made it work in Tokyo with a 388-page “New Tokyo. New Tomorrow.” manifesto that sets 500 specific infrastructure and development targets aimed at improving daily life for residents, a departure from previous administrations more focused on ties between government and big business.

But a lack of a clear-cut policy profile has not stopped a significant shift in the polls over the past few days in Koike’s favor. The LDP approval rating of 44 percent when Abe announced the election on Sept. 25 has quickly fallen to 24 percent with Koike’s party at 15 percent, according to a Monday

So what is the source of her party’s appeal, if not policy or ideology? A hint is offered in Koike’s initial campaign rhetoric, which has focused on Abe’s scandals, which involve the alleged misuse of his office to help his friends. Koike has also emphasized that, because she would not be beholden to the long-dominant LDP, she would truly represent the needs of the people. “We are determined to reset Japan and realize politics not beholden to any special interests,” she said at a kickoff news conference.

The economy may well be a saving point for Abe. His revitalization program of “Abenomics,” launched with great fanfare when he took office in 2012, has not been the game-changer that he promised would break Japan out of its 25 years of slow growth and deflationary pressure. At the same time, it has not been the failure claimed by some critics In fact the latest financial data shows that Japan is capitalizing on strong global growth. The economy expanded at a 2.5 percent annual rate in the second quarter, quite strong by historical standards and within the confines of a shrinking population. Industrial production is rising and the employment market is at its strongest since 1974 with 1.5 jobs available for every applicant plus a clear upward trend in the labor participation rate since Abe took office.

An outright victory for Koike’s fledgling party remains unlikely, especially since she has repeatedly said that she would not give up the Tokyo governor post to run, meaning she could not herself be prime minister under the constitution. A good performance mirroring what happened in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election earlier this year could be enough, however, to seriously weaken Abe, who has already been in office for nearly five years.

Abe had hoped that a strong victory in this election would in turn help him win his party’s separate leadership vote next September for another three-year term. That would be enough to potentially take him through the 2020 Olympic Games, to be held in Tokyo, and provide more time for his personal goal of changing Japan’s pacifist constitution to give the military a stronger legal standing. But LDP powerbrokers have historically shown little patience with their leaders. Even though the party has been in charge of the nation for all but five-and-a-half years since its founding in 1955, the average prime minister has been in office for just over two years.

As the now third-longest-serving prime minister in postwar Japan, Abe has already bucked the odds, but Koike could spoil his gamble entirely — especially if the winds turn and LDP figures start jumping ship to bolster the new party. If he suffers heavy losses to a party formed just a few weeks before the election, it may be more than the LDP leadership can stomach. Even by the party’s own forecasts, the LDP is expected to lose some seats in this round, due mainly to its overweight presence in the lower house where the election takes place. Out of the house’s 475 seats, the LDP holds 60 percent of the total, against just 18 percent for the Democratic Party. The LDP’s ally Komeito adds another 35 to the ruling coalition’s control.

A new era of political turmoil would in many ways take Japan back to where it was before Abe arrived. With approximately one new prime minister every year from 2006 to 2012, Abe had specifically pushed for long-term leadership as a way to raise Japan’s relevance on the global stage. The question some voters are now asking is why he therefore wants to push a political agenda just when the country needs strong leadership in the face of North Korea. With 60 percent of voters saying they oppose the idea of an election now, Abe may be leading the country to the uncertainty he says he wants to avoid.

Photo credit: KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images

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