National / Politics | Decision 2017

‘Manifesto’ era may be over but election campaigns still rife with rosy pledges and vague bottom lines

by Reiji Yoshida and Alex Martin

Staff Writers

Eight years is a long time in Japanese politics and people are quick to forget, but things were vastly different then.

In summer 2009, the Democratic Party of Japan won a sweeping victory against the Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito ruling coalition in the Lower House election, exciting voters and political observers with the emergence of a new campaign tool modeled on the British-style “manifesto” concept of promises backed by clear financial sources and specific deadlines.

Before the 2000s, Japanese political parties tended to repeat pat slogans and avoid making concrete promises.

But in the 2009 campaign, the DPJ issued a manifesto that included a vow to drastically reorganize the bloated government budget. In a rare feat, it ousted the LDP-Komeito coalition from power.

But the rookie party’s first term in power proved short-lived, and the LDP-Komeito block took charge again in December 2012 under LDP President Shinzo Abe.

“Now the situation is totally different from that time,” said Jun Iio, a professor of political science at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.

Iio noted that some parties, including Abe’s LDP and Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike’s Kibo no To (Party of Hope), have rushed to churn out election promises with little substance.

Abe abruptly dissolved the Lower House on Sept. 28, leaving little time to form concrete plans with senior LDP officials, Iio said.

After the 2009 election, the DPJ government failed to keep a number of its key election promises, deeply disillusioning voters. This is probably one reason why both voters and parties are no longer so interested in manifesto-based campaigns, Iio said.

And Koike apparently doesn’t seem to care much about the details of her party’s election promises.

“Kibo no To was created in a rush and its policy proposals seem to have been formed as a formality. So I don’t know how much weight those pledges will carry” after the election, Iio said.

Some of Kibo no To’s election pledges, dubbed the “12 Zeros,” surprised voters and analysts because they were so unrealistic.

Among them is the Zero Pollen Allergies — a vow to eliminate all pollen allergies in Japan, most notably those caused by the millions of Japanese cedar trees planted across the nation after the war.

Another is Zero Jam-Packed Commuter Trains, which would require vast investment to increase the number of trains and improve railway operations in Japan’s biggest cities.

Kibo no To hasn’t explained how it would achieve these 12 goals or finance them.

The most divisive issue in the election is probably whether to revise the Constitution.

Abe’s LDP has pledged to initiate a national referendum to revise war-renouncing Article 9, among other parts of the supreme code drafted during the Occupation.

In its 2012 proposal, the LDP called for a drastic revision to Article 9 that would allow Japan to fully exercise its right to collective self-defense as defined under the United Nations charter.

But now Abe is proposing a revision that would legitimize the existence of the Self-Defense Forces, claiming it would not change Japan’s exclusively defense-oriented military posture.

Komeito, the LDP’s junior coalition partner, has argued that while the LDP’s proposal is understandable, “winning over more of the people” is the priority as far as Article 9 is concerned.

Kibo no To meanwhile says it will only make the decision on Article 9 after a public consensus forms.

In the opposition camp, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, led by Yukio Edano, opposes any revision to Article 9 that “would deviate from the exclusively defensive posture” of Japan.

The Japanese Communist Party opposes any revision whatsoever.

When it comes to economic policy, Abe’s camp has only one new idea: completing the doubling of the consumption tax to 10 percent in late 2019 to fund his recent education and social security initiatives.

Kibo no To and several other opposition parties are pledging another freeze on the tax hike, which has become one of the main themes on the campaign trail alongside North Korea’s nuclear threat.

But what’s missing from the campaign, economists say, is debate on the more fundamental issues facing Japan, like the rapid graying and shrinking of its population and its snowballing debt.

“Parties are turning a blind eye to serious policy matters that would require the public to shoulder a greater burden,” said Kenji Yumoto, vice chairman of the Japan Research Institute, who noted that fiscal discipline has taken a back seat in the campaign.

Before the election, the government planned to spend about ¥4 trillion of the ¥5 trillion in annual proceeds projected from the 2019 tax hike to reduce the public debt, which exceeded 230 percent of its gross domestic product as of 2016.

But consumption tax hikes have historically led to severe public backlashes. In fact, the reason it is scheduled to rise to 10 percent from 8 percent in 2019 is because Abe himself has already postponed it twice.

For this election, Abe has sweetened his chances by promising to spend around ¥2 trillion of the extra revenue on his new education and social security programs, which include free kindergarten and day care services for children 3 to 5 and free higher education for youths in low-income households.

That may please some voters, but it also means Abe won’t be able to achieve his 2020 target of turning the primary budget balance into a surplus, meaning the government can cover all its expenditures (excluding debt-servicing costs) with tax revenues. Pushing the deadline back could erode confidence in Japanese government bonds.

It’s not just Abe’s ruling LDP. None of the opposition parties seems to have a clear plan on how to achieve fiscal health, Yumoto said.

Koike’s Kibo no To has suggested taxing companies’ internal reserves to cover any shortfalls in tax revenue caused by not hiking the consumption tax. But economists have voiced skepticism about the plan, including the possibility that it would be tantamount to double taxation and prompt companies to move overseas.

Edano’s CDP also supports freezing the tax hike but hasn’t specified how it plans to achieve longer-term fiscal soundness.

What’s common among all three parties, however, are pledges to either free up education or offer tuition subsidies, policies that would require massive financial resources and which could easily end up as pork barrel projects unless serious discussions take place on how to make education better, Yumoto said.

Takao Komine, professor of economics at Taisho University, said Japan has a demographic time bomb it needs to defuse. By 2025, it will see a new wave of baby boomers aged 75 and over that start drawing on their social security benefits and put a heavier strain on the nation’s finances.

“Talk of tax hikes and reducing social security payments is unpopular, so none of the parties will bring them up during the election,” he said.

“I think this is very unfortunate for Japan.”

Touch swipe table right/left to view.

LDP Komeito Kibo no To CDP JCP
Economy Raise the sales tax to 10 percent in and spend \2 trillion of the extra revenue on education and child-rearing programs Raise the sales tax rate to 10 percent in 2019 and introduce special reduced tax rates for food and drink purchases Suspend the 2019 consumption tax hike; impose a tax on companies’internal reserves Oppose any immediate hike in the sales tax. Terminate the 2019 sales tax hike; tax big firms and wealthy people more
Constitution Consider revising Article 9 to legitimize SDF and adding new articles on education, emergency powers for prime minister and electoral area reforms Consider adding articles on environmental protection, local autonomy and extension of Diet members’ terms in contingencies Study revising Article 9; revise Article 8 to strengthen local autonomy; consolidate lower and upper chambers of Diet Oppose any revision to Article 9 that would deviate from Japan’s exclusively defense-oriented policy Oppose revision of Article 9
Foreign nationals Ease naturalization conditions for foreign professionals and toughen them to exclude potential terrorists Grant permanent foreign residents local voting rights Oppose giving local election voting rights to non-Japanese residents Eliminate discrimination of all kinds Grant permanent foreign residents voting rights in local elections
Education Provide free higher education for children living at or below poverty line Provide free education for children up to age 5; create college scholarship that would not need to be repaid Provide free child education and eliminate high school fees Reduce high school and college fees Eliminate high school fees and cut college fees in half
Welfare/Child-raising Provide free nurs-ery service and education for all children ages 3 to 5 by 2020; increase the capacity of cer-tiy ed child day care centers by 320,000 Increase the capac-ity of certiy ed child day care centers by 320,000 Study introduction of a basic income system; enact a law to eliminate? waiting lists for child day care centers Provide financial assistance to child-raising households Provide free nurs-ery and educa-tion services for young children; increase the capacity of cerertified child day care centers by 300,000
Energy Reduce Japan’s reliance on nuclear power as much as possible Oppose any plan to build new nuclear power plants Aim to eliminate nuclear power plants by 2030 Eliminate all nuclear power plants as soon as possible Eliminate all nuclear power plants by 2030
Others Protect the nation from North Korean military threat by strengthening the Japan-U.S. military alliance and increasing international pressure; promote inbound tourism and increase visitors to 40 million a year Enact laws to ban LGBT discrimination, hate speech and domestic violence; aim to eliminate all pollen allergies, packed trains, passive smoking, killing of abandoned pets and exploitative enterprises with bad working conditions Promote government information disclosure;? abolish the state secrecy law; re-examine the Futenma base relocation plan in Okinawa Investigate Kake/Moritomo Gakuen scandals thoroughly; abolish the state secrecy? and conspiracy laws; halt Futenma base relocation and remove from Okinawa