After weeks of wild speculation that 2017 may get off to a tumultuous start with a snap election in late January, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told the nation on NHK on Dec. 16 that this won’t happen.
As he put it: “At the moment, I have not the slightest intention of dissolving the Lower House.”
In Nagata-cho, the nation’s political epicenter, the prime minister has been known to publicly lie about snap elections. But this time around, he seems to mean what he said.
Political observers say a snap election at this point would be anything but a success and would possibly cost Abe’s ruling coalition the strong majority it enjoys in the Lower House. As the new year kicks off, pressure is building on Abe to carefully weigh his desire to consolidate power against the various risks that accompany such gambling, they say.
“There is absolutely no guarantee that Abe will win big if he calls a snap election now. It would be a fairly risky move for him,” said Yoshiaki Kobayashi, a political science professor at Keio University.
Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party and its junior partner, Komeito, hold 329 of the 475 seats in the Lower House, giving the coalition the critical two-thirds supermajority needed to initiate a national referendum on amending the Constitution, Abe’s longtime dream.
Although not unprecedented, this feat has been difficult to achieve in modern times. While the LDP has governed Japan virtually uninterrupted for decades, it has only achieved a two-thirds majority in three of the 12 Lower House elections dating back to 1980, each with the help of Komeito or variant New Komeito — first in 2005 under the stewardship of charismatic leader Junichiro Koizumi, and then in 2012 and 2014 under Abe.
Questions thus remain over whether Abe would be able to repeat the feat should he call a snap election now.
Originally, the idea of Abe dissolving the Lower House at the beginning of 2017 emerged amid surging expectations that he would make a breakthrough in the territorial row with Russia at his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin last month.
That would have boosted his popularity, allowing him to call a snap election under the pretext of seeking a public mandate on whatever historic deal the two agreed on. But the summit fizzled, leaving the sovereignty dispute over the four islands off Hokkaido on hold. Even LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, a staunch ally of Abe, openly branded it a failure.
This was followed by a drop in the Abe Cabinet’s popularity in the opinion polls stemming from the undemocratic haste with which the LDP passed the casino legalization bill through the Diet in late December.
Even Abe’s much-hyped visit to Pearl Harbor last week was somehow marred by the revelation that he was not the first Japanese leader to pay homage there, but the fourth. The visit, according to political science professor Jun Iio at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, is unlikely to give him enough momentum to succeed with a snap election.
Iio added that Donald Trump’s formal transition into the U.S. presidency on Jan. 20 will fuel uncertainty over the state of affairs both at home and abroad, making Abe reluctant to take the risk of creating a political vacuum.
At the same time, these negative factors will be eclipsed somewhat by the lackluster performance of the opposition camp, led by the Democratic Party, Kobayashi of Keio University said. The DP’s popularity continues to hover below 10 percent in opinion polls despite the election of Renho as its first female president in September.
“I mean, Abe could try and have a go at a snap election in January, but there is no reason why he has to do it now,” Kobayashi said.
The prospect of the ruling coalition scoring a landslide victory becomes even slimmer if the four main opposition parties, including the Japanese Communist Party, manage to arrange an electoral tie-up and agree to field joint candidates, some say.
Yoshihiko Noda, secretary-general of the DP, told reporters last month that the four parties had agreed to “cooperate as much as possible” in fighting the Abe administration in the next Lower House election. But how effective they can be remains to be seen, given their fundamental policy differences.
The influential Nikkei business daily unveiled a provocative estimate in early December saying the ruling coalition might lose as many as 60 seats in a next Lower House election if the four opposition parties successfully avoid splitting the opposition vote by uniting in single-seat constituencies.
While addressing a group of junior lawmakers in October, Hakubun Shimomura, vice secretary-general of the LDP, reportedly went so far as to declare the party at risk of losing 86 seats in the next Lower House poll should the opposition parties succeed in fielding joint candidates.
This, coupled with the fact that this year’s Diet session will be swamped with important bills, including special legislation to permit the Emperor’s abdication, could cause Abe to wait until September — when an extraordinary Diet session is usually called — to dissolve the Lower House. Snap elections are usually initiated in the middle of a legislative session.
Kobayashi said a September election could make more sense in that victory would guarantee Abe another four years in office until fall 2021, when his prime ministership — assuming he successfully seeks a third term at the end of his current tenure in September 2018 — would likely end. Such a scenario would allow him to pursue his policy goals, however controversial, without worrying about public opposition, he said.
Iio of the National Graduate Institute also pointed out that Abe might for now take a wait-and-see attitude to see if the DP descends into further disarray before making his move.
The DP faces ever-deteriorating relations with trade union Rengo, its biggest supporter, as its leadership explores a tie-up with its enemy, the leftist JCP, in the next election. A possible move by charismatic Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike to create a new political party would draw anti-LDP votes away from the DP, leaving it even more tattered.
Abe is “looking for a golden opportunity to crush the DP thoroughly,” Iio said.
But it’s not just a snap election that is in store for Japanese politics in 2017. Signs of friction are emerging in the LDP’s long-standing alliance with partner Komeito, and it is increasingly cozying up to conservative opposition newcomer Nippon Ishin no Kai.
The LDP’s breakneck passage of the unpopular casino legislation bill last month, which was supported by Ishin but opposed by Komeito, prompted Komeito President Natsuo Yamaguchi to vote against it in a rare act of repudiation.
Komeito’s Tokyo chapter even announced last month that it intended to put an end to its decades-long alliance with the LDP after the two parties locked horns over Komeito’s proposal to cut the salaries of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly by 20 percent.
While a complete disintegration of the LDP-Komeito alliance on the national level is unlikely, observers say Abe is in no mood to let go of his party’s newfound friendship with Nippon Ishin, whose backing of LDP-sponsored bills helps discredit the allegation that his party is riding roughshod over the opposition camp.
An alliance with Ishin also would earn the LDP stronger support from a conservative electorate, Kobayashi said.
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