Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party won the snap election he called while his main opposition was in disarray. This makes him the longest-serving prime minister since World War II, and it gives him the ability to continue his efforts to strengthen Japan’s military.
After his predicted win, which he described as a “vote of confidence”, Abe promised “strong counter-measures” against North Korea, and he said he wants to amend Japan’s post-war pacifist constitution.
However, he will need to convince a divided public to proceed in the drastic amending of the constitution. Such a process, though, is likely to take several years, and Abe said he’s not determined to push the effort through by 2020, as he earlier suggested.
Why a snap election?
Last month, Abe announced the election, which was initially expected to take place in 2018. He said he wants a mandate from the voters to divert revenue from a planned 2019 consumption tax increase and use it to support education; initially it was meant primarily to pay down debt, as well as finance welfare programs.
However, a poll by the Japanese newspaper Asahi showed that 70 percent of eligible voters were not convinced by the reason. Critics have called Abe’s snap election a ploy to take advantage of the struggling Democratic Party, which had been his main opposition. Others said he was trying to save his own skin after his popularity plummeted amid revelations that he gave personal favors to two school operators.
North Korea’s threats worked to Abe’s advantage
Abe’s image was boosted, in part, by what one observer said has been an alarmist reaction to North Korea missile tests.
Phillip Lipscy, assistant professor at Stanford University, told CNBC that the Japanese government “has really hyped the North Korea threat — they’ve been stopping trains, blasting alarms and sending text messages every time a missile goes over Japanese airspace — so I do think it’s fair to say that they’ve been taking maximum advantage of the North Korea situation for political advantage.”
Local governments have conducted evacuation exercises in the face of missile threats from the hermit kingdom.
Abe’s victory now sets the path of amending, if not potentially ending, Japan’s trademark pacifism.
A new opposition party forms
Abe’s victory was due in large parts to the slight opposition he had. The more left-leaning Democratic Party, which governed Japan from 2009 until 2012, abandoned the election and its leader resigned in July. Instead, its members will be able to seek nominations from the new Party of Hope.
The party was created last month by Yuiko Koike, the governor of Tokyo and a former Democratic Party member. Her party is offering a “middle of the fairway” choice and promised to respect diversity, protect the public and consider a basic-income policy.
But Koike herself did not run, which hampered the party’s chances because voters don’t know whom they’d be electing as prime minister.
This left another party, the new left-leaning Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, as the main opposition to Shinzo Abe. It was formed by the liberal members of the Democratic Party and won 55 seats out of the 465-member chamber.
What else is at stake?
Shinzo Abe is known for his brand of economics called “Abenomics,” which is a set of policies set in 2012 to jumpstart Japan’s economy with structural reforms, such as adding more women into the workforce, and fiscal stimulus, such as pumping more money into the economy and giving more companies tax breaks.
Though his program hasn’t reached its target of overcoming deflation, he will most likely keep it in place because the economy is growing and unemployment is less than 3 percent. Koike wanted to hold the tax rate steady, rather than the increase from 8 percent to 10 percent that Abe has planned for 2019, and she would sell state assets to balance the budget.
Meanwhile, Abe wants to restart nuclear reactors, despite opposition from the majority of Japanese citizens. Abe has warned that the country’s economy will be at risk using coal and natural gas, which have huge costs.