It’s as if Japan – and the United States – are offering their elections, to demonstrate just how oblivious of human welfare the laws of probability act.
The LDP hardly looked much like a winner on form over the incumbent DPJ. It shows little sign of having changed its old parish-pump habits. Indeed, it turns out, the LDP landslide was not because Japanese voters rediscovered a new LDP, or were persuaded by its recycled leader, Shinzo Abe, about ‘regaining a Japan we can be proud of’. Rather the anti-LDP forces splintered miserably, failing to form a united and clear alternative. Skewed as the system is in favour of large parties, the largest one left standing took the prize. In fact, the electoral support for the LDP in this election appears hardly greater than it was in the disastrous 2009 election. Fragmentation and incoherence among Japan’s progressivist parties lost the election; Abe and the LDP won the election by default.
At face value an Abe government could mean a substantial shift in Japanese policy, not all of it comfortable for Japan’s neighbours and friends. Abe sees a future including nuclear energy; is strong on the right to ‘collective defence’; is assertive over territorial claims; but, handmaiden of Japan Agriculture that it is, does not want to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations that might free trade and strengthen the US alliance relationship.
While the LDP has won a decisive two-thirds majority in the Lower House, which allows it to resubmit and pass legislation rejected in the Upper House, forming a political coalition on any of these objectives will not be easy. The Japanese polity is deeply split on these and other issues and, as the poll numbers show, there is no deep electoral mandate for any of them. The Restoration Party, for example, which shares Abe’s hawkish view about the Constitution and collective defence (to deter China, among other things), will not solve Abe’s problem of commanding a majority in the Upper House where the Restoration Party has only three seats. And the LDP’s main coalition partner, the Komeito, is wary of supporting these changes. The configuration of policy positions across parties means that Abe would have to take political philandering to new heights — into serial political coalition with a different party on almost every issue of national importance — in order to strike the deals the LDP would have to get what it wants.
The cynicism of all parties, again, like in America, is as rotten as stinky cheese.
The parties have been scrambling to identify issues on which to run. The LDP has campaigned on a program of constitutional revision, confrontation with China, and unorthodox monetary and fiscal policies to end deflation. The DPJ has run a negative campaign mocking the radicalism of the LDP program. Two new medium-sized parties, the Japan Restoration Party and the Tomorrow Party of Japan, have been trying to find space at the edges of the political spectrum while trying to camouflage their being stocked with retreads and parvenus.
There are issues of interest to the voters, such as the return to economic growth, stabilisation of the pension system, accommodating the rise of China and the future of nuclear power. The voters know, however, that these complex problems cannot be solved by the nostrums offered in the parties’ hastily compiled election manifestos.
The dearth of viable policy programs might be acceptable if there were credible leaders. Unfortunately, the leaders of the major parties all provoke strong negative reactions from the majority of voters. The national broadcaster, NHK, when it asked voters to choose a proper prime minister from a head-to-head contest between the leaders of the two mainstream parties, found that 19 per cent nominated Noda, 28 per cent nominated LDP president Shinzo Abe, and 47 per cent selected ‘neither of them’ (poll conducted 7–9 December 2012).
The lack of pivotal issues or popular leaders has resulted in voters choosing a default option based upon traditional ties. The LDP, as the traditional party in power, has benefited the most from this reflexive pattern of voting. Most of Japan’s voters are not aligned with a particular party, however. The LDP, while the runaway leader, has mustered less than 28 per cent support. Kyodo News, in a poll conducted 4–5 December, found that a stunning 48 per cent of voters still had not decided which party they would vote for in the proportional half of the ballot, and a staggering 56 per cent had not yet decided on a district seat candidate.
To make matters worse, the failure to implement a redrawing of the electoral district map based upon the +0/-5 solution means the election has been carried out using an electoral district map the Supreme Court finds unconstitutional. The Supreme Court on 28 November showed its traditional deference to the decisions of the legislative branch, a panel of the justices refusing, on procedural grounds, to halt the 16 December election. However, the Court has no qualms with lawsuits filed after the election. A crusading group of lawyers is ready to file lawsuits in 60 jurisdictions on 17 December, seeking to invalidate the election’s results.
The Japanese electorate has been confronted with a nothing election: an election called for no reason, lacking attractive candidates or even fundamental legitimacy. That a plurality of the electorate was undecided just four days before election day, despite having 12 parties to choose from in the party proportional vote, should surprise no one.
Compare the apathy depicted in the first graph of the above-quoted block quote for the inevitable alarm and consternation among South Korean leftists ready to trot out the same-old, tired anti-Japanese propaganda just in time for Wednesday’s elections in South Korea.
Abe, who is now a shoo-in to return as prime minister, is well known for his far-right views. He is the grandson of another prime minister, Nobusuke Kishi, who was held as a suspect for Class A war crimes for his deeds during the Second World War. During his previous term, Abe faced severe criticism at home and abroad for his right-wing politics, including his refusal to acknowledge the forcible drafting of “comfort women” from Japanese colonies to serve as sex slaves to the country’s military. Now he is going even further, announcing that in addition to amending the Constitution to allow the exercise of collective self-defense rights, he also plans to make Shimane prefecture’s Takeshima Day – a celebration of supposed Japanese sovereignty over the disputed Dokdo islets – into a national event. He pays respects at Yasukuni Shrine, where many war criminals are enshrined, and he is waiting for an opportunity to revise the Kono Statement of 1993, which recognized the forced mobilization of comfort women.
Another worrisome development is the boost the election gave the Japan Restoration Party, which is led by former Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara, a figure who has openly called for Japan to arm itself with nuclear weapons. He has also proposed a coalition government with the LDP based on a revised Constitution. That amendment is not likely to happen right away, but the twin rise of Abe and Ishihara is a signal that frictions with neighboring countries over historical and territorial matters are only going to intensify.
The LDP’s economic policies are also very likely to hurt South Korea. The party has pledged unlimited quantitative easing in order to bring the ailing economy back from the brink. This would involve reviving exports and manufacturing by devaluing the yen, an approach that puts South Korean exporters at risk. The party should understand that Japan cannot expect to be treated like the world’s third largest economy by the international community when its policies show such a complete lack of consideration for its neighbors and contribute so much to tensions. Whoever is elected president in South Korea on Dec. 19 will need to prepare for this right-leaning Tokyo with a clear understanding of the historical issues at play.
Place bets now how likely this Japanese government will crumble in a year.