National / Politics | DECISION 2014

Amid lack of alternatives, Abe looks to win big by default

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

Judgment day has arrived for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and the fates of 1,191 Diet hopefuls hang in the balance.

But the focus of Sunday’s snap House of Representatives election is not on how close it will be, but on how strong the ruling coalition will become. Most media reports predict Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party alone will win as many as 300 of the 475 seats in the lower chamber.

According to media projections, the LDP-Komeito ruling coalition is likely to secure two-thirds of the Lower House in a landslide victory, giving it an absolute majority. That will allow the bloc to chair all of the committees in the chamber and even override decisions by the Upper House.

It would also virtually guarantee Abe’s re-election as prime minister later this month and the LDP president next fall, keeping him in power for another three years.

Although reports say voter turnout might set a new record low, Abe may nevertheless claim he has a mandate for pressing ahead with “Abenomics,” his economic growth strategy comprising the “three arrows” of superaggressive monetary easing, fiscal spending and vows of structural reform that he says will raise Japan’s long-term growth.

In the longer term, a more powerful LDP would also pose a greater chance of Abe proposing a national referendum on amending the pacifist Constitution, his long-held ambition, observers say.

But despite the drastic choices the nation may face, candidates from both the ruling and opposition parties say they are perplexed by the public’s confused and tepid reaction to the election.

Many voters feel stuck because there is simply a lack of viable alternatives to the LDP, which has been in power for most of the past five decades. Some remain disappointed by the failure of the Democratic Party of Japan to show the nation that an opposition party could actually govern when it seized its first chance at power from 2009 to 2012 on a campaign touting “change.”

“I’m still wondering which I should vote for, the LDP or the DPJ,” said a 39-year-old woman listening to a campaign speech at Minami-Urawa Station in Saitama Prefecture on Dec. 5.

The woman, who only gave her surname of Sasaki, said she has had a difficult time managing her family’s budget since the April consumption tax hike to 8 percent from 5 percent. But despite her doubts about Abe’s policies, she said she couldn’t find a better alternative.

“The DPJ just proved disappointing when it captured power. I wonder if I should vote for the DPJ again,” she said.

An opinion poll conducted by the Asahi Shimbun from Dec. 6 to 9 showed that 70 percent of respondents planned to vote, down 6 points from the same period before the December 2012 Lower House election.

This and other surveys indicate voter turnout Sunday could plunge to a record low of around 55 percent, breaking the current record of 59.32 percent set in the 2012 election.

A lower turnout rate would likely benefit the ruling bloc because they it has more core supporters than the opposition parties, which depend more on swing voters.

Takanori Sasaki, a 67-year-old certified public accountant unrelated to the other Sasaki, backs both Abe and his LDP.

But he, too, pointed out the opposition’s lack of economic alternatives to Abenomics.

“I think (Abe) is doing a good job in managing the economy. I don’t think there is any other way than (Abenomics) to boost the economy now,” he recently said at JR Omiya Station in Saitama.

“The opposition parties have criticized Abe a lot, but I want to tell them that they should show us some alternative proposals. Otherwise we have no choices,” he said.

In the 2009 Lower House election, the DPJ swept to power as voters frustrated by nearly 55 years of uninterrupted LDP rule (except a brief period spent in the opposition from 1993 to 1994) bought into its mantra of change after it threw the LDP into turmoil.

But the DPJ failed to deliver on several key promises, including a pledge to drastically streamline the bureaucracy and unearth wasted financial resources to invest in social security and other areas.

As a result, the DPJ was thrashed in the 2012 Lower House election,while Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party) and Your Party emerged as “third force” parties, winning 54 and 18 seats, respectively.

Nippon Ishin has since split in two while Your Party disbanded amid an internal power struggle. The fall from grace of these once-promising parties left many swing voters seeking a viable third force disillusioned. Many are now expected to vote LDP or simply abstain, surveys show.

“I support the LDP. I feel Japan could crash unless Abe keeps his job a little longer,” said 49-year-old Toshihiro Hotta, who is self-employed.

Hotta pointed out that prior to Abe’s second term in office, the political situation was so unstable a new prime minister was chosen nearly once a year since 2006.

“In such a situation, no one can do a good job (on the economy). I want a prime minister to keep doing his job for a certain period of time, say, like four years,” he said.

Although constitutional issues are close to his heart, Abe is trying to avoid them in the campaign and is focusing on the economy, remembering a tough lesson from his first, short stint in power.

An amendment to the Constitution must be initiated by a two-thirds majority vote in both chambers of the Diet and ratified by a majority of voters in a national referendum.

At the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo on Dec. 1, Abe said the public isn’t ready to make such a weighty decision yet.

“To my regret, I don’t think there has been momentum among the people to revise the Constitution yet,” Abe said.

Still, the prime minister left the door open to a future push.

“At first, I’d like the LDP to promote national campaigns” to garner more support from general voters, he said.