Japan: Abe’s landslide in seats based on no increase in votes

By Jude Woodward

Shinzo Abe and his right wing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) swept to an outright victory in Japan’s snap General Election at the weekend.

His LDP/Komeito Party ruling coalition won over two-thirds – 313 – of the seats in the lower house of the Japanese Parliament. Taken together with the coalition’s existing two-thirds majority in the upper house, the election delivered a ‘super-majority’ for Abe which potentially allows him to take such steps as changing the Japanese constitution without consulting the opposition parties.

Abe’s election platform included a pledge to amend the ‘pacifist’ Article 9 in the Japanese constitution, which currently means it can only wage defensive war.

However although Abe won a stunning majority in seats this was not the result of a similar landslide in votes.

Firstly the turn out in the election was very low at 53.9 per cent, only about 1 per cent up from 2014 which registered the lowest ever turnout in a Japanese General Election.

Secondly the LDP itself only saw a tiny increase in its share of the vote – from 33.1 per cent in 2014 to 33.3 per cent this time, an increase of only 0.2 per cent – while its coalition partner Komeito saw its vote fall by 1.2 per cent from 13.7 per cent to 12.5 per cent. This meant support for the coalition overall declined from 46.8 per cent in 2014 to 45.8 per cent this year.

In other words the electorate was distinctly lukewarm towards Abe. The fact that – despite crowing in the Western press about the success of ‘Abenomics’ –Japanese economic growth for the last three years has averaged less than 1 per cent has not made Abe or the LDP particularly popular.[i] His personal approval ratings have been increasingly negative in 2017, primarily due to economic issues, but also amplified by a series of corruption scandals,[ii] and concern about the impact of the proposed change to the constitution

The reason why this nonetheless translated into a landslide in seats for the LDP was primarily due to the divisions that have beset the opposition in a system where 60 per cent of the seats are elected by a first past the post system. On the eve of the election the main opposition Democratic Party (DP) dissolved, eventually producing two new rival parties, the right-wing Party of Hope and the more liberal Constitutional Democratic Party(CDP).

The Party of Hope was launched by Tokyo Mayor, Koike provoking the dissolution of the DP.  Abe announced the election later the same day! The new party aped the policies of the LDP, supporting it on changing Article 9, and only opposing it on nuclear power and a previously agreed 2 per cent hike in sales tax – from 8 per cent to 10 per cent – which is due to come in shortly. During the election Koike suggested that her party would be willing to form a ‘grand coalition’ with the LDP, although since the election result she has denied this.

Despite the fanfare on its launch – when the DP effectively dissolved itself to allow its sitting MPs to run for the new party – Koike’s junior version of the LDP eventually came third to the other party formed out of the ruins of the DP, the CDP. Before the rapid founding of the CDP, after the election had been called, it appeared that the Communist Party of Japan would effectively become the main alternative to the LDP’s policies. In the event, the CDP won 55 seats to Hope’s 50, and 19.9 per cent of the popular vote compared to 17.4 per cent, while the Communist vote was squeezed back from 11.4 per cent in 2014 to only 7.9 per cent in 2017. Although the Communists still did considerably better than the Japanese Social Democrats, whose vote fell from a disastrous 2.5 per cent to an annihilating 1.7 per cent.

Neither Hope nor the CDP put forward a clear alternative to Abe’s policy of strengthening Japan militarily against China (with North Korea as the fig leaf for this) nor to his economic policy. The CDP opposed Abe’s proposed constitutional change, but offered no fundamentally different course for Japan domestically or internationally.

The LDP has been in government continuously in Japan since the end of the US occupation in the 1950s, on a platform of subordination of foreign, trade and domestic policy to the demands and interests of the United States. Despite Abe’s nationalistic spin on Japanese politics, he has at all points stressed that maintaining and strengthening Japan’s relationship with the US is fundamental and non-negotiable, a position reinforced by hostility to China in particular.

There have only been two moments where an alternative to the LDP was able to win elections and form a government.

The first was in the mid-1990s when, in the context of a crisis in the LDP, a series of very short-lived coalitions eventually led to a Socialist Party-led government that lasted two years, on a policy of reorienting Japan towards Asia in the context of the end of the Cold War, the end of any threat from Russia, and the growing economic weight of South Korea, the island of Taiwan and increasingly China. The US’s total hostility to this orientation forced it to abandon this course and hastened its fall leading to a return of the LDP in 1996.

The second was when the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) under Hatoyama won the election in 2009 on a pledge to close the US base in Okinawa and also to reorient Japan to Asia, now China in particular, floating the idea of some community of northeast Asian states on the model of the EU. Again total hostility from the US forced Hatoyama to change course on Okinawa, and within a year he was ousted as PM and replaced by DPJ right-winger Naoto Kan, who reoriented policy back in line with the US. The LDP, under Abe, easily won the next election in 2012.

The lesson is clear. Barring a crisis in the LDP where a political current of essentially the same character replaces it under a different name, the only opposition that can hope to replace the LDP as Japan’s main party of government is one that proposes to reorient the country from the US to Asia, especially China.

Abe’s policy is to strengthen Japan’s orientation to the US, chiefly by expanding Japan’s military forces. This was begun in response to Obama’s 2010 ‘pivot to Asia’, shifting US naval and military resources to the Pacific to counter China and encouraging US regional allies to rearm. It has stepped up in response to Trump’s threats that allies cannot rely on the US military umbrella unless they ‘pay their way’.

But this is not entirely popular in Japan itself. Although the recent crisis over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes has led to some hardening of positions in the Japanese population in favour of militarily strengthening Japan, opposition to the US base in Okinawa remains strong and support for changing Article 9 of the constitution remains questionable. Not only is such a step highly controversial in Japan, but it is fiercely opposed by Japan’s neighbours, not just China and Russia but also South Korea. Japanese voters are concerned about provoking a deteriorating security situation in the region.

A number of opinion polls taken in April and May this year confirmed this.[iii] A poll by Asahi reported 63 per cent opposed to revision, with 29 per cent in favour; NHK – Japan’s public broadcaster – found 57 per cent and just 25 per cent for (down from 30 per cent in its previous 2002 poll); Kyodo’s ‘mail-in’ poll was the only one to show a majority in favour, with 47 per cent against and 49 per cent for. NHK’s poll also showed that 82 per cent thought Article 9 either ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ useful for peace and security, despite also finding that 87 per cent thought Japan was currently threatened, especially by North Korea and China.

Certainly Abe is not going to back off on his support for Japanese rearmament and support for the US’s policies towards China. He has promised a ‘hard line’ on North Korea, but as for Trump himself, short of risking an all-out war that might wreak significant damage on South Korea and Japan itself, Abe does not have many options. Whether he pushes through a change to Article 9 – which looks more likely now he has a ‘super-majority’ and de facto support from the Party of Hope – is nonetheless still an open question, given the level of popular opposition.

Whatever else happens, this election result is no cause for celebration by the peace movement internationally and will deliver no economic respite to the Japanese working class.

[i] World Bank data. Available at https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.MKTP.KD.ZG?end=2016&locations=JP&start=2009&view=chart

[ii] Browne, R. ‘As Shinzo Abe’s approval rating declines, markets could question sustainability of “Abenomics”: Analyst’, CNBC, 14 July 2017

[iii] Mark, C. ‘Japan debates changing its pacifist constitution’, The Diplomat, 18 May 2017

The above article was previously published here on the New Cold War blog site