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USJI Voice Vol.6

Prime Minister Abe and the Lower House General Election

February 24,2015
Dr. SADAFUMI KAWATO
The University of Tokyo

The 2014 general elections for the Lower House took place at exactly the two-year midpoint of a four-year term. Why did Prime Minister Shinzo Abe call a general election? In the face of a slowing economy, with preliminary gross domestic product (GDP) figures for July to September 2014 showing a year-on-year decrease of −0.5% (an annualized rate of −1.9%), Prime Minister Abe decided to postpone the planned increase in the consumption tax to 10%, pushing it back from October 2015 to April 2017. His official explanation to the press was that the postponement of the consumption tax increase represented a major decision affecting the lives and livelihood of the people; thus, he had decided to dissolve the Lower House in order to put the question to the people via an election. “This is the dissolution to seek a fresh mandate for ‘Abenomics,’” he explained. “The election will be about whether the people want to proceed with Abenomics or to stop it: whether they feel we should keep moving ahead with the economic policies and growth strategies that we have implemented thus far.”

The procedures for postponing the 2% hike in the consumption tax were already clearly written into the bill at the time it was passed; hence, dissolving the Lower House in order to put the question to the people via an election was not any sort of prerequisite to delaying the tax increase. Furthermore, none of the parties had any objections to postponing the tax increase, making it a moot point of contention during an election. Public opinion surveys conducted by various media outlets before and after the dissolution of the Lower House showed that, while percentages varied, between two-thirds and three-fourths of eligible voters were either unconvinced that Abe’s dissolution of the Lower House was the right step to take, unable to understand his reasoning or did not approve of his decision. Opposition parties criticized Abe’s decision to dissolve the Lower House as “pointless.” Some also criticized the dissolution on the grounds that the ensuing general election would waste more than 60 billion yen of budgeted monies.

Because the dissolution happened earlier than anyone expected, opposition parties had little time to organize their candidates, leaving them critically unprepared. The unexpectedly smooth and uncontested selection of opposition candidates in each district was due to the acute shortage of candidates in each party, given the reality that the election had no chance of resulting in a change in the governing party. The smoothness of candidate selections had nothing to do with promises of post-election cooperation or coalition building; it was simply the result of desperation to get the requisite number of candidates. This situation amongst the opposition parties meant that the election was a foregone conclusion from the moment it was announced, given the large number of incumbent candidates of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Komeito.

Following the December 14th election, the mass media reported significant victories for the ruling LDP and Komeito, which many political commentators ascribed to the fact that the election revolved around the uncontentious issue of delaying the consumption tax increase and the fact that the opposition parties were caught off guard by the unexpectedly early dissolution of the Lower House. The commentators recognized the shrewdness of Abe’s strategic decision to capitalize on these two factors for an impressively large electoral success. The election revolved around whether or not the people approved of Abenomics and the performance of Abe’s Cabinet and the ruling LDP and Komeito. By dissolving the Lower House when he did, Abe was able to acquire a stable foundation for four more years in power for the current ruling parties.

Election Timing

Did Prime Minister Abe really have this strategic aim in mind when he dissolved the Lower House? An empirically verified model of early parliamentary dissolution in contemporary political science posits that a prime minister will not call an election when the popular support for the government is at its highest; rather, he or she will call an early election when he or she expects a poor government performance in the near future (Smith, Alastair. 2004. Election Timing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). According to this model, a prime minister who is doing well politically would not dissolve parliament early. The reason for not doing so is to continue to build up political achievements which, in turn, would be expected to increase approval for the Cabinet amongst the electorate, and this then helps ensure victory for the ruling party in the general election at the end of the normal term. In contrast, a decision to dissolve parliament early sends a signal to the electorate that the prime minister is not confident of his or her political performance in the near future. Thus, a general election called as a result of an early dissolution of parliament will produce a lower level of electoral support than expected.

In Japan, the power to dissolve the House of Representatives is effectively reserved for the prime minister and is treated as a measure of last resort. Presumably, Abe would have considered the best timing to dissolve to the end of the representatives’ elected term in December 2016. It is safe to assume that when deciding the timing to dissolve, the prime minister took into consideration upcoming events such as controversial debates in the 2015 ordinary Diet session, the nationwide local elections in April, the LDP leadership election in September in which he has to secure reelection, and the Upper House election in July 2016. But then he considered the problems of “politics and money” facing him in October 2014, which included waning support for the Cabinet following the resignation of two Cabinet ministers and declining preliminary GDP figures for the July to September period, casting a shadow over the economy. Abe’s decision to dissolve the Lower House was likely made from the realization that, as things stood, the situation was only going to get worse for his administration. Thus, Abe’s dissolution of the Lower House dovetails perfectly with Alistair Smith’s model, discussed earlier, of dissolving parliament when political performance is expected to worsen in the near future.

Election Results and Aftermath

The results of the general election can, in fact, be read as a mark of approval for Prime Minister Abe’s Cabinet by the electorate; however, it is not quite the overwhelming victory that the mass media reports it to be. Compared with the previous election, the LDP lost three seats while Komeito added four seats, leaving the political balance of power essentially the same as before the election. Nonetheless, the slight increase in Komeito representation means it is more likely that Komeito will act as a brake on the prime minister’s chosen policy course. As for the opposition parties, the Democratic Party did slightly increase its number of seats, although its party leader lost his election. The Japan Innovation Party lost one seat, leaving its position essentially unchanged; thus, they have virtually no power to challenge the ruling parties.

It is overly optimistic to assume that, politically, a smooth road ahead awaits the Abe Cabinet. Rather, it remains to be seen how skillfully the Prime Minister can utilize the asset of increased political support, as
represented by the seats picked up, in seeking to achieve his administrative goals. Contentious debate in the Diet and the promotion of unpopular policies will wear away at this asset. A number of difficult issues lie ahead, including improving the legislation based on the authorization of the use of collective self-defense adopted by the Cabinet last year, the relocation of the U.S. military’s Futenma base in Okinawa, diplomatic disagreements with China and Korea and the Prime Minister’s public position on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, and the question of what to do about report findings dealing with the issue of Japanese citizens who were abducted by North Korea. It is safe to assume that Prime Minister Abe will be reelected as head of the LDP in the fall; however, he will need to weigh up his assets and consider how to utilize them effectively. Furthermore, Abe’s long-held ambition to revise the constitution is an issue that will cause his political assets to decline, much as they did with the issue of collective self-defense, and he will need to invest a lot of time in getting the Japanese public to understand his rationale.

Above and beyond these issues, what is important is the Abe Administration’s strategy for economic growth in the form of the “Three Policy Arrows” of Abenomics. The first arrow, which is monetary easing, has had a major impact, but the second arrow of fiscal policy has become the traditional stimulus measures for addressing the slowing economy. The third arrow of growth strategies that fundamentally change the structure of industry and create new growth areas has yet to be seen. What is more, in the event that the total eradication of leadership throughout the JA and the liberalization of the operation of local agricultural cooperatives creates a growing wave of local opposition, it will exacerbate existing differences and, as nationwide local elections approach, will foster resistance to reform, which will reduce the political assets available to Abe.

Issues Facing the Opposition

Meanwhile, from the perspective of the opposition parties, last year’s general election result was no more than a bump in support and nothing like a restoration of the electoral confidence that the Democratic Party lost following its heavy defeat in the general election two years ago. This past election also saw Democratic Party President Banri Kaieda lose his seat in Tokyo’s 1st District, and even with a good loser provision among candidates with the same rank in the party list, he was also unable to win a seat in the proportional representation election. As the party president, Kaieda realized that he would be unable to do virtually any campaigning in his district, making it highly likely that he would lose his seat. One possible measure that would have prevented him from losing his seat would have been to put himself alone on top of the party list for PR, but this approach was not used as the unwritten rule was that no person who failed to finish as a competitive candidate in a single-seat constituency would be recognized as a lawmaker and thus would have to accept the results of a lost election. The elections for party president held in January came down to a decision between 43-year-old former Secretary-General Goshi Hosono, who envisioned a restructuring of the opposition, and 61-year-old Katsuya Okada, who was a central administration figure during the period when the Democratic Party was in power. The stability-minded Okada ended up winning. Okada spoke of leading the party in rebuilding itself and recapturing the reins of government in the next general election; however, the appointment of an establishment politician to the presidency of the party signals to the electorate that the Democratic Party will remain unchanged and will not hand over control to a new generation of leaders. It is hard to imagine that the Democratic Party will be able to so easily snatch back control of the government in a single general election. It will likely be more than several years away before the Democratic Party will be able to make a real challenge for leadership of the government, which is a fact every Japanese voter already knew after experiencing the Democratic Party administration.

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