National / Politics | DECISION 2014

As opposition dithers, voters mull four more years of Abe

by Isabel Reynolds and Maiko Takahashi

Bloomberg

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s chances for becoming the nation’s longest-serving leader in more than four decades are increasing as the opposition finds itself hobbled by factionalism, shifting policies and funding shortages.

The Dec. 14 victory in the Lower House election that the public opinion polls are predicting would strengthen Abe’s grip over his Liberal Democratic Party ahead of a leadership vote next September. A new three-year term as party chief, plus a win in the 2016 Upper House election, would see his command stretch to 2018.

While Abe’s policies have damaged household spending power by eroding real income, and have featured unpopular moves to restart nuclear reactors and loosen limits on the Self-Defense Forces, the opposition has failed to make inroads with voters.

The Democratic Party of Japan — in office just two years ago — blames Nov. 18 snap ballot call by Abe for only having candidates in 60 percent of the single-member races. Deeper concerns include a slump in campaign contributions that gave the LDP a better than 2-1 advantage last year, and a failure to rebuild from a split months before the 2012 election.

“It’s a lazy excuse to say that they had a lack of time to prepare,” said Mari Miura, a political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo. “It’s hard to know if they will get their act together by the Upper House elections in 2016, given that they haven’t come very far in the past two years.”

One DPJ member ousted in the last Lower House vote puts it in starker terms.

The party “has to start all over again, and it will take 20 years or something,” said Mieko Nakabayashi, who represented a district in Kanagawa Prefecture and now teaches at Tokyo’s Waseda University. “Trust often times for independent voters means the leadership. So you have to change faces.”

It was the DPJ-led administration that enacted the two-phase doubling of the consumption tax, against popular opinion, before losing power at the end of a term that saw it abandon a push to reduce the U.S. military’s presence in Okinawa. Abe last month delayed the second part of the tax increase, a move that the biggest opposition party now agrees with.

Also featured in the DPJ’s platform this campaign: a goal of phasing out nuclear energy before 2040, revocation of Abe’s move to give the SDF greater leeway to support allied forces and a call for the Bank of Japan to take account of household finances — a challenge to the reflation program of BOJ Gov. Haruhiko Kuroda, an Abe appointee.

In two out of five of the 295 single-member districts, voters will not have the option of backing those policies, because there will not be a DPJ candidate. In more than 13 percent of those seats, the ruling coalition — which groups the LDP and Komeito — faces token opposition from fringe candidates such as from the Japanese Communist Party, according to the Sankei Shimbun.

The other 180 seats will be determined by proportional-representation votes. A Mainichi Shimbun poll published Dec. 1 showed that 38 percent of the respondents said they would vote for the LDP, and 6 percent backed Komeito. The DPJ was endorsed by 12 percent, with 8 percent for Ishin no To (Japan Innovation Party), the core of which was established by Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto.

Projections by the Nikkei, Asahi, Yomiuri, Sankei and Mainichi newspapers released Thursday showed that the LDP would win about 300 of the 475 seats, compared with 294 before the election.

“The main risk scenario is perhaps that of the LDP maintaining or even bettering its current standing,” Makoto Yamashita, the Japan rates strategist in Tokyo at Deutsche Securities Inc., wrote in a note last week. “The prospect of Abe remaining in office through 2018 would probably drive up equities and dollar-yen, with interest rates liable to face upward pressure if the yen weakens particularly sharply.”

Abe was previously prime minister from 2006 to 2007, when his tenure was cut short by illness and Upper House election losses. A six-year stretch this time round would leave him the longest-lasting prime minister since Eisaku Sato, who presided during the boom years from 1964 to 1972.

“He is seeking to stay in power for a long time,” said Naoko Taniguchi, a political science associate professor at Tokyo Institute of Technology. “If the economy takes a downturn in that time, he will face headwinds, so he needs to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Swelling corporate profits under “Abenomics,” the administration’s economic program that has driven the yen down 28 percent against the dollar since the end of 2012, have returned a dividend to the LDP.

Contributions to the party made by the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association have increased more than 30 percent, the Asahi Shimbun reported. Corporate and other organization contributions jumped 42 percent, to about ¥1.95 billion, the Asahi reported.

Taxpayers pick up some of the tab for political funding, based on how parties performed previously, with private donors contributing the rest. While individuals can donate, such payments are marginal in party finances. Individual candidates can also raise funds, along with associations that support campaigns — which are a fraction the length and cost of those in the U.S.

The LDP took in ¥23.3 billion last year, compared with ¥9.4 billion for the DPJ, according to statements published by the internal affairs ministry. The advantage in funding, if continued into this year, would have eroded the DPJ’s edge in savings, which totaled ¥21.9 billion at the start of 2013, compared with ¥1.4 billion for the LDP.

Unlike the LDP, DPJ candidates individually do not have much money and are dependent on the party to fund their campaigns, said Nakabayashi, the former DPJ lawmaker.

The party, which swept to office in 2009 in the aftermath of the global recession that saw Japan’s economy contract, went through three prime ministers in three years, with shifting priorities as its term went on. After Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda pushed through the consumption tax legislation, the DPJ saw the departure of one of its main factions, led by former LDP lawmaker Ichiro Ozawa.

After it lost three-quarters of its Lower House seats in the 2012 election, Banri Kaieda, a former trade and industry minister, took over as the DPJ’s chief. This year, he moved to expel two of the three former DPJ prime ministers, underscoring the party’s continued turmoil.

“The DPJ hasn’t got its act together in two years in opposition because of poor leadership, lack of cohesion, and an absence of ideological glue, said Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University in Tokyo. “It’s hard to know what the DPJ stands for.”

The disarray means the party has failed to capitalize on voter discontent with Abenomics. The Mainichi poll, conducted Nov. 29 and 30, indicated that 71 percent of people’s livelihoods have not improved under Abenomics. Half of Abe’s own supporters agreed with that assessment, according to the poll, for which the Mainichi did not specify a margin of error.

Only 51 percent of those who said they thought Abe’s team should not win said they were actually going to vote for one of the opposition parties.

“I haven’t felt the effects of Abenomics, all it’s done is increase the gap between rich and poor,” said Mitsuhiro Okamoto, 60, who is not in full-time employment. Even so, he said he plans to submit a blank ballot, because he doesn’t think the opposition has fleshed out its own policies.

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