National / Politics | Decision 2017

Voters head to polls to deliver verdict on Abe

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Voters will deliver a verdict on the five-year-old administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe with Sunday’s snap election, as opinion polls show his ruling coalition, despite a surprise challenge from populist Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, is widely expected to cruise to victory and help him consolidate his grip on power.

A survey by the conservative Yomiuri Shimbun daily from Tuesday to Thursday suggested the ruling Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito pair could gain more than 300 seats in the 465-member Lower House, well beyond Abe’s self-imposed victory line — a simple majority of 233. The daily, however, noted the situation remains fluid as 20 percent of Japan’s voters are still undecided.

An outright victory would be taken as a powerful public mandate for Abe, adding momentum to his widely rumored bid next year to run for a historic third term as LDP president.

The looming arrival of Typhoon Lan — considered one of the biggest to threaten Japan in decades — could dissuade swing voters from participating and erode turnout, which would favor major parties with solid organization, including the LDP.

Internal affairs ministry statistics show that 4.107 million people had opted to vote early as of Oct. 15, compared with the 2.699 million early voters tallied in the same period before the 2014 general election.

From the get-go, Abe’s surprise decision last month to call a snap election was dogged by controversy.

By law, the Lower House poll didn’t need to be held for more than a year, but Abe, emboldened by his Cabinet’s recovering popularity and a fractured opposition, was convinced of his chances of winning and went ahead with the gamble.

The opposition blasted the move as self-serving. The fact that Abe hustled to dissolve the Lower House the instant the Diet had reconvened for an extraordinary session last month, they said, suggested he wanted to avoid being grilled over two favoritism scandals that sent his popularity plummeting in the summer to the lowest level since his return to power in December 2012.

Abe has maintained that the election was meant to seek a public mandate for his effort to “break through national crises” — namely North Korea’s relentless nuclear threats and a rapidly shrinking population at home.

The leader said he aims to drag Pyongyang back to the negotiating table by pursuing a pressure-first approach in lock step with U.S. President Donald Trump, while vowing to use revenues from the planned 2019 consumption tax hike to boost education and social security programs.

What would have been a golden scenario for Abe, however, quickly turned iffy as the conservative Koike, his biggest political rival of late, raised the stakes by announcing she was forming a new reformist party, Kibo no To (Party of Hope), to unseat him. Koike undoubtedly sought to replicate the sweeping victory she engineered in July, when her regional party Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First) clobbered Abe’s LDP in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election.

In the Tokyo poll, the glib governor’s populism-driven “Politics without Fetters” slogan — a dig at the LDP-led establishment politics she claimed was rife with vested interests and opacity — worked beautifully. By repeating the catchphrase, it looked as if she might take down Abe once again — this time on the national stage. Her new position as Kibo no To head also fueled speculation she would quit the governorship to seek a Diet seat to have a chance at becoming the nation’s first female prime minister if her party beat the LDP.

Within days of Koike’s announcement, Seiji Maehara, head of what was then the main opposition Democratic Party, struck a deal with the governor to let his members run on Kibo no To’s ticket in the election, a move that, in essence, marked the dissolution of the DP’s Lower House caucus.

But her flirtation with national politics quickly ignited criticism that she was making light of her job as Tokyo governor, and she soon realized she couldn’t afford to further antagonize Tokyo residents by leaving after just a year. At the same time, her decision not to seek a Diet seat dashed any hopes of becoming prime minister, significantly weakening Kibo no To’s momentum.

Adding to the backlash was her own heavy-handed declaration that she would screen, or in her words, “get rid of,” DP members considered too left-leaning for her party’s conservative views on revising the Constitution and beefing up national security. Two key founding members of her regional Tomin First also bolted earlier this month, citing a dictatorial leadership style that runs counter to her ostensible commitment to transparency.

At the end of the day, it was former DP lawmaker Yukio Edano who became the true wild card of the race.

Edano refrained from jumping on Koike’s bandwagon as many others in the DP did and instead formed the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, which is quickly gaining momentum. Opinion polls suggest the new party, which had a pre-election strength of only 16 seats, could emerge as the biggest opposition group after the election, though it would still be far short of threatening Abe’s ruling bloc.