Official campaigning for the Dec. 14 Lower House election kicked off Tuesday, with 1,191 candidates across the country angling for one of the chamber’s 475 seats.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe dissolved the chamber on Nov. 21, saying he needs voters to endorse his decision to postpone hiking the consumption tax rate to 10 percent.
But the focus of debate has already shifted to other economic issues, particularly the success or failure of the prime minister’s “Abenomics” policies — super-aggressive monetary easing, more fiscal spending and structural reforms to raise Japan’s long-term growth potential.
Opposition leaders have argued Abenomics has only boosted stocks and depressed the yen to benefit big companies, and the government has failed to push through essential structural reforms. The policies have also lowered people’s living standards, critics say, as reflected in the decline in real wages.
The Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito ruling camp has defended Abenomics, hailing it for boosting jobs and corporate balance sheets, and that Abe’s Cabinet simply needs more time to break deflation and for Abenomics to bring trickle-down benefits to people across the country.
Abe and Banri Kaieda, head of the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan, made their first stump speeches in Fukushima Prefecture, having identified recovery from the 2011 nuclear crisis as one of the nation’s most pressing tasks.
“We need to strengthen the Japanese economy to make progress on recovery work,” Abe told an audience in the city of Soma, about 50 km north of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.
“There is no doubt the economy is getting better,” he added. “Our mission is to spread the positive effects to nonurban areas and smaller companies.”
Kaieda asked people in Iwaki if their daily lives have improved since Abe took office two years ago.
“The prime minister says the economy is getting stronger, but his policy is benefiting only a limited number of people,” he said. “The main pillar of the DPJ’s policy is to support families with children and to stabilize employment and the social security program.”
Observers believe Abe’s ruling coalition will maintain its majority in the election, ensuring his return as prime minister.
Thus the focus of attention has shifted to how many seats the LDP will lose, given the apparent growing frustration over Abenomics’ shortcomings.
It is arguably natural that the LDP should lose some of its seats, since the party won as many as 294 of the chamber’s 480 seats in the previous 2012 election, riding on widespread frustration over the DPJ’s performance in power.
But recent polls have indicated a greater level of unhappiness with Abe’s Cabinet than earlier thought.
A poll conducted by Kyodo News on Friday and Saturday showed 47.3 percent of respondents expressed disapproval with Abe’s Cabinet, exceeding the approval rate of 43.6 percent. It is the first time disapproval has exceeded support in a Kyodo poll since Abe returned to power in December 2012.
Observers say if the ruling LDP-Komeito camp loses the absolute majority of 266 of the 475-seat chamber — the threshold needed for the ruling bloc to occupy all committee chairs — it would considerably weaken Abe’s political clout, while Komeito’s would rise. Before the dissolution of the chamber, the LDP had 295 seats and Komeito 31.
Meanwhile, a vast majority of voters still appear to be wondering who to vote for, probably due to the lack of preferable alternatives.
When the same Kyodo poll asked how people intended to vote, 28.0 percent said they would support the LDP in the proportional representation bloc, up 2.7 percentage points from a Nov. 19-20 opinion poll.
Another 10.3 percent said they would vote for the DPJ, up a mere 0.9 percent, and 41.2 percent said they had yet to decide.
Abe knows voters will not pull their support because there is no powerful opposition party to swing to. His campaign slogan is “This is the only way,” a message apparently designed to emphasize that Abe’s Cabinet is the only viable choice.
Observers believe the LDP will probably lose seats in the Lower House, Komeito will retain its current hold, the DPJ may gain seats, and some smaller parties will prove to be the biggest losers.
On Sunday, DPJ Secretary-General Yukio Edano said the party aims to win as many as 100 seats, according to the Asahi Shimbun. As of Tuesday, the party held only 62 seats in the Lower House.
Meanwhile, former members of the now-defunct Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party) and Your Party are struggling for survival.
In the 2012 election, the two parties were considered a possible national third force, with Nippon Ishin winning 54 seats and Your Party 18.
But over the past year, Nippon Ishin no Kai has split into Ishin no To (Japan Innovation Party) and Jisedai no To (Party for Future Generations), while Your Party dissolved itself. Both had fallen victim to internal strife and declining voter support.
The latest Kyodo poll showed 3.3 percent of respondents saying they would vote for Ishin no To, while 0.6 percent said they would support Jisedai no To, in the proportional representation segment.
Information from Kyodo added