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Snap Election 2014: Gaming the Parliamentary System

Tags: Abe , Election , LDP , Komeito , Political Party

Yakushiji, Katsuyuki

December 11, 2014

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Prime Minister Abe’s decision to hold a general election on December 14, at a time when the government has little to gain from a new mandate, has left observers perplexed. Katsuyuki Yakushiji illuminates the political calculus behind Abe’s timing.

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On November 21, 2014, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe dissolved the House of Representatives, as announced at a press conference three days earlier. On December 14, a mere two years after Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party ousted the Democratic Party of Japan in a landslide, the people will once again head to the polls. The question is, why?

Terms for members of the House of Representatives will not expire for another two years. In addition, the next House of Councillors election is not scheduled until the summer of 2016. With the ruling coalition in control of both chambers of the Diet, most observers felt the Abe cabinet was in a strong position to pursue decisive policies oriented to the medium and long term without immediate concerns over an electoral backlash.

Meanwhile, April’s consumption tax hike has taken its toll on economic growth, and the prime minister’s signature policies for economic revitalization—known as “Abenomics”—have lost much of their former luster. So, why risk a general election now? This is what foreign correspondents have been asking me since Abe’s surprise announcement. Indeed, many Japanese observers have been puzzling over the same question.

Preemptive Strike

The media have offered a range of theories concerning Abe’s rationale for dissolving the lower house. But the explanation I have received from top officers in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is really quite simple. The LDP’s leaders have calculated that, over the next two years, the party will never be in a better position to wage a general election campaign.

In Japan’s parliamentary democracy, the ability to dissolve the lower house and call a general election is one of the key powers of the prime minister, and the timing of such an election is one of the most important political decisions the prime minister can make. Abe and his advisors surely looked long at hard at key issues on the foreign and domestic front as well as trends in Japanese party politics before arriving at their decision. Accordingly, the best way to understand that decision is to do as Abe did: Review the political agenda for the next two years and ask whether the ruling coalition will be better positioned farther down the road.

With regard to economic policy, which Abe has made the centerpiece of his government since taking office in December 2012, gross domestic product plunged in response to a consumption tax hike implemented in April 2014, and while a temporary jolt was expected, the continued decline in the July–September 2014 quarter was disappointing. So far, prospects for a strong rebound are not yet in sight.

In 2015, the Abe government plans to resume operations at many of the nation’s nuclear plants. It also hopes to push through a package of bills reflecting the cabinet’s new interpretation of the Constitution opening the door to Japan’s limited participation in collective self-defense arrangements. Neither of these measures is popular with the public, and both are expected to be targets of vigorous criticism from the opposition when the next ordinary session of the Diet convenes in January.

Cognizant of these challenges ahead, Abe sought to shore up support for his government last September by reshuffling his cabinet. With its three new female appointees, the new lineup initially drew favorable reviews. Then two of the women were forced to resign over claims they misused political funds, leaving Abe in a worse position than before.

In the face of these headwinds, the cabinet and the LDP will be hard-pressed to avoid a further decline in popular support over the next two years. The prime minister must have been anxious to avert a repeat of the debacle he presided over during his first cabinet, when the government’s approval ratings plummeted in the run-up to the 2007 House of Councillors election; the LDP went down to a historic electoral defeat in the upper house then, and Abe was forced to step down.

This time, the prime minister has taken a good hard look at his medium-term political agenda and other factors—including the battle-readiness of the opposition—and made the shrewd decision to dissolve the House of Representatives while the ruling coalition still enjoyed a solid advantage.

Unfair Advantage?

At the press conference where he announced the snap election, Abe offered a somewhat different explanation, citing his cabinet’s decision to delay the next phase of the consumption tax increase. “The tax system is at the heart of parliamentary democracy,” he said. “No major change in the tax system should be carried out without a popular mandate.” But given that none of the opposition parties oppose the delay, this seems a flimsy pretext for calling a general election. Strategic partisan considerations, not policy issues, then, drove Abe’s decision to dissolve the lower house. Small wonder that voters found it somewhat mystifying.

In 2011, Britain rejected this kind of ploy when it passed the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. The law provides for five-year fixed terms for the House of Commons (the British equivalent of Japan’s House of Representatives) and sharply circumscribes the prime minister’s power to call snap elections. The rationale for the reform was that the prime minister’s ability to dissolve the House of Commons put the opposition at an unfair electoral disadvantage.

In Japan, dissolution of the lower house is considered the prerogative of the prime minister by convention under Article 7 of the Constitution, and no one can protest that decision. Even so, Japanese prime ministers have rarely exercised that power without some compelling justification, such as a political or policy crisis. The last two snap elections, called in 2012 and 2009 by Prime Ministers Yoshihiko Noda and Taro Aso, respectively, came amid plummeting approval ratings and intense pressure from the opposition, and both resulted in a change of government. But Abe was under no such pressure last month, when he dissolved the lower house on his own initiative.

The Opposition in Disarray

Be that as it may, the strategy seems likely to pay off. As noted above, the cabinet’s decision to put off the next phase of the consumption tax increase is not an election issue, since all the parties are in agreement on this point. The main target of the opposition is the current administration’s policies for rebuilding the economy.

The prime minister, of course, is playing up the successes of Abenomics, citing a surge in stock prices, growth in exports thanks to the falling yen, job creation, and wage increases. The opposition counters that only big business has benefited from the prime minister’s policies. Wage increases have been limited to a handful of major corporations, and most new jobs are temporary or contract positions with minimal job security. The gap between rich and poor, opponents say, continues to widen.

The problem is that none of the opposition parties—including the DPJ, which held power from 2009 to 2012—have offered any viable alternatives to Abenomics. As a result, their criticisms smack of negativism and have failed to generate voter support. According to most opinion polls, support for the LDP has held more or less steady at around 40%, roughly three times the second-ranking DPJ’s support rate. Since the DPJ’s fall from grace, the LDP has been a unified giant among factious pygmies.

Part of Abe’s intent was doubtless to catch the opposition off balance, and in this he has succeeded. Since none of the opposition parties has the capacity to field candidates in every constituency, electoral cooperation among the smaller parties is vital to counter the powerful LDP. But the snap election has left insufficient time for conciliation and coordination.

The LDP-Komeito coalition is running candidates in almost all 295 of the single-member lower-house districts. The DPJ, meanwhile, has too few candidates to seize a majority even in the best of circumstances. In some 60 districts, moreover, multiple opposition candidates will be vying against one another, splitting the anti-LDP vote and giving the ruling coalition an overwhelming advantage.

Voter Apathy

In short, there is precious little at stake in the coming election. The outcome is unlikely to have an effect on basic policy, and a change of government is outside the realm of possibility. Small wonder that voter interest is so low.

The contrast with the previous three general elections is striking. The 2005, 2009, and 2012 campaigns were all replete with political drama. In 2005, Prime Minister Jun’ichirō Koizumi called a snap election to secure a mandate for postal reforms opposed by senior members of his own party. In 2009 the DPJ broke the LDP’s long postwar monopoly on power, and in 2012 the LDP came surging back. In each case media coverage continued at a fever pitch, and voter interest was at an all-time high. This time the mood is closer to apathy. The question “Why now?” has given way to a sense of “Why bother?”

Naturally, this apathy is expected to translate into low voter turnout, which will favor the LDP and the Komeito, so Abe could not have planned it better. If the ruling coalition does score another landslide, as media polls are predicting, the next question is what policies Abe will seek to advance. Will he focus on pushing forward with his Abenomics agenda of economic growth, or will he seek closer ties with Japan’s neighbors? The rhetoric of his campaign thus far offers few clues to the tenor of his next term.

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