Japanese are under the mistaken impression Sunday’s elections are about the economy. What they really highlight are the costs of chronic apathy.
Every nation gets the leaders it deserves, quipped 19th century philosopher Joseph de Maistre. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government has spent two years punting on the big decisions it was entrusted to tackle. Polls show the economy is the biggest concern among voters, who also believe it’s on the wrong track (it’s in recession, after all). Yet with turnout expected to hit a record low, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which put Japan on this trajectory, is set to win in a landslide.
Abe claims that a fresh mandate will help him sell his Abenomics revival program to reluctant members of his own party. There’s little reason to believe him. In the last two years, even as inequality has grown faster than Tokyo’s debt load and the fabled salaryman has morphed into part-time man, Abe has focused inordinate attention elsewhere. He’s passed controversial secrets laws, made undemocratic end runs around the pacifist constitution, alienated China and South Korea, and tried to restart nuclear reactors against widespread public opposition.
Rewarding Abe’s party on Dec. 14 is likely to lead to more of the same, rather than a renewed push to deregulate Japan. So why are voters about to do just that? To me, these elections are a reminder that Japan remains a one-party-state. With a couple of brief exceptions, the LDP has ruled Japan since 1955. Even during its time out of power — 1993 to 1994 and 2009 to 2012 — the party’s ideals were never shunted aside. We call the Democratic Party of Japan the “opposition” more out of desire than fact. It’s populated with refugees from the LDP, and there’s negligible ideological daylight between both parties.
A well-oiled financing machine that makes Tammany Hall look like amateur hour, as well as years of gerrymandering, will pay off handsomely Sunday. The real question for most Japanese isn’t who to vote for, but whether to bother. Abe knows this all too well.
“I think that somebody has figured out that a disillusioned electorate makes it easier to get things done,” says Colin Jones of Doshisha Law School in Kyoto, whose op-ed in The Japan Times this week went viral in Japanese cyberspace.
Headlined “Electoral Dysfunction Leaves Japan’s Voters Feeling Impotent,” the piece makes for depressing reading. “Everyone,” Jones writes, “seems mystified by this election, except possibly the man who called it, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Opposition parties are in disarray and are not expected to achieve politically meaningful gains. There being no open signs of dissent within Abe’s own party that need quashing, the perfectly reasonable question on many lips is, ‘Who is this election being fought against?’ “
On a recent trip to the western city of Kumamoto, I chatted up eight Japanese in their early 20s. All of them said they hadn’t yet felt the benefits of Abenomics. None planned to vote Sunday; neither did anyone in their extended peer groups. When asked why, they asked what the point would be. On Thursday night in Tokyo, I spoke with half a dozen Japanese in the late 20s and early 30s — same response.
“Me and my friends are calling this the Seinfeld election — the election about nothing,” says Ayako Kobori, a 31-year-old graphic artist.
Voters should be holding Abe accountable for not fulfilling his bold pledges to increase wages, foster innovation, cut trade barriers and avoid a full-blown debt crisis in the years ahead. Instead he’s delivered sugar highs — prodding the Bank of Japan to crash the yen and the government pension fund to buy stocks — while carrying out a conservative and nationalist agenda.
Abe’s second stint in office is looking uncomfortably similar to his 2006-2007 tenure. Back then, he talked big about implementing the restructuring program of predecessor Junichiro Koizumi only to get distracted with pet projects like encouraging patriotism in school curricula and ensuring that a woman couldn’t inherit the Chrysanthemum Throne. This time around, too, distractions have gotten the better of his government.
Apathy has consequences. By rewarding Abe for a job not even remotely done, voters are giving him a mandate to continue leading Japan down the wrong path.
William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist based in Tokyo.