The past two House of Councilors elections, in 2007 and 2010, saw opposition forces win big against the ruling parties of the time. But the trend is almost certain to end this time around.
All signs indicate the July 21 poll will see a repetition of last month’s one-sided Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election, with too little time left for the opposition camp to revive their comatose support ratings or for the ruling coalition to make a critical slip.
But despite wooing the public with radical economy-boosting measures, questions remain as to whether another resounding victory by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which would give it full control of the Diet, should be taken as a complete vote of confidence in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s contentious policies.
On the campaign trail, the LDP is trumpeting Abe’s economic achievements while lying low on divisive issues, analysts say. In addition, the disgraceful justification by Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party) co-leader Toru Hashimoto of Japan’s wartime system of sexual slavery has seen support plummet for his group, a potential LDP ally on constitutional revision, causing Abe to tone down his rhetoric even further, at least for the time being.
“The LDP is doing its job so far and the economy is looking good, so my vote will go to them,” a 58-year-old woman who asked to remain anonymous said in Chuo Ward, Tokyo, earlier this week. “But in terms of revising the Constitution or (Abe’s) hawkish foreign policies, I’m not sure if I support the government completely.”
Public surveys by multiple media outlets suggest that although the LDP will triumph again in the upcoming vote, having maintained the support that propelled it back to power in December’s general election, some of Abe’s pet projects, including amending the war-renouncing Constitution and allowing the Self-Defense Forces to engage in collective self-defense, are far from gaining widespread public backing.
For instance, a survey last month by the Asahi Shimbun found that 76 percent of those polled considered the economy and employment to be critical factors in deciding who to cast their ballots for. Social security and welfare were next with 60 percent, but national security trailed far behind, at only 33 percent, and revising the Constitution was cited by a meager 21 percent.
In fact, a Tokyo Shimbun poll of 1,500 people in May showed that 58 percent of the respondents preferred to leave the charter’s war-renouncing Article 9 unchanged, against only 33 percent who supported its revision.
One would also think the government’s energy policy — and especially the restart of reactors — would be a key issue for voters, since just two years have passed since one of the world’s worst nuclear crises rocked the northeast. But “Abenomics,” the prime minister’s package of economic, fiscal and monetary stimulus steps, appear to have snatched the spotlight away from the Tohoku region, even though large parts of it are still years away, at best, from recovering from the nuclear and quake-tsunami disasters of March 2011.
In another survey of 1,061 people by the Yomiuri Shimbun last month, Japan’s nuclear and energy policies ranked only fifth among nine major issues that respondents considered important in deciding which party to back in the Upper House poll.
Whereas over 80 percent of those surveyed nominated the economy, social security and Tohoku’s recovery from the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami as critical matters, only 65 percent said the parties’ respective energy policies would be a factor when casting their votes. Abe’s LDP is eager to restart idled nuclear reactors up and down the country, while most opposition parties want them kept offline.
“If you look at the specific issues that are being debated, the public doesn’t have a clear-cut opinion on many of them,” Fukashi Horie, a Keio University professor emeritus who specializes in politics, told The Japan Times in an interview.
“But such differences won’t likely become a factor in the election. At the end of the day, the LDP is poised to win big,” he said.
Some political observers have noted that the Japanese Communist Party scored handsome gains in the June 23 Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly poll by positioning itself as the clear antithesis of the LDP on such issues as constitutional revision, nuclear power and taxation.
But the number of votes the JCP will garner in this election will be trivial at best and likely irrelevant, others estimate, as opinion polls indicate the LDP continues to enjoy a wide lead over its feeble rivals, including the Democratic Party of Japan, which has yet to recover from its booting from office in December’s general election.
“I’m planning to vote for the LDP because its policies are very business-friendly. The DPJ, on the other hand, only knew how to drive us into a corner,” Tomonori Futsugi, a businessman, told told The Japan Times on June 27 near Tokyo’s JR Shinagawa Station.
“I also think the LDP is more capable of managing capital flows. All I hope is for the party to pursue even more aggressive economic policies and to pump more money into business communities, so our wages will hopefully rise,” the 32-year-old said.
Many interviewed on the streets of Tokyo by The Japan Times before the official campaign period began Thursday said they were still undecided over which party to back, but echoed Futsugi in clearly citing the economy as the main focus.
Some of them, however, expressed reservations about Abe and his administration.
“I’m somewhat skeptical that Abe is being completely honest with the public. I can’t help but think he is just doing some song and dance to win the Upper House election” and seize full control of the Diet, said a 54-year-old homemaker near Tamachi Station in Minato Ward.
But as for who she will cast her ballot for July 21, the woman, who asked that her name be withheld, said none of the parties has much allure.
In Shinagawa, Albert Shimizu, a 27-year-old Japanese national who is half Taiwanese, said he wanted the Abe administration to take the issue of youth unemployment more seriously and do more to improve the situation. But Shimizu, who is looking for a job himself, added he was not thinking of voting this time, saying, “I hardly believe my vote alone will carry any weight that is capable of making any real difference.”
If the low turnout in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election is repeated July 21, due to voters turning a blind eye to Abe’s controversial plans for the Constitution and SDF amid the glow of “Abenomics,” which has yet to bring tangible benefits to consumers, the LDP will become the first party since 2007 to control a majority in both Diet chambers.
Keio University’s Horie said that having a stable administration and ending the divided and gridlocked legislature has its merits. But it is also true that a one-sided victory for the LDP could unshackle Abe’s pursuit of his more contentious policies regardless of the lack of public support for them.
“The election outcome already seems pretty much set at this point,” Horie said. “But voters should thoroughly consider the outcome of their actions before casting their votes.”