In the December snap election called by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner, Komeito, won 326 of the Diet’s 475 seats, retaining their two-thirds majority in the Diet’s Lower House. It was an extraordinary achievement — one that Japan has not witnessed in decades.
Japan’s opposition parties offered no convincing alternative to the Abe government’s policies. The Democratic Party of Japan, which led the government less than three years ago, was unable even to field enough candidates to contest every seat. Its road back to political relevance appears long and bleak.
Of course, under the single-seat constituency system, minor parties in Japan are at a distinct disadvantage.
Indeed, a landslide victory on the scale of Abe’s may very well lead to some of them completely disappearing from political life.
The only opposition party that made significant gains in the recent vote was the Japanese Communist Party, which nearly tripled its seat total, from eight to 21. The JCP has recently sought to position itself as a “reliable opposition” to the LDP — though it has never proved particularly “reliable,” at least not in promoting realistic policies.
Given this, the JCP’s gains were probably fueled more by disgruntled voters’ desire to signal their frustration to Abe. In fact, in those districts where the election pitted JCP and LDP candidates against each other, many citizens did not take the trouble to vote. This contributed to record-low voter turnout of 52 percent — the one real blemish on the LDP’s victory.
The main actor in the election was undoubtedly Abe himself, whose bold macroeconomic strategy, “Abenomics,” has attracted considerable attention since its initiation two years ago. But three other actors also played important roles in securing Abe’s victory.
The first was Saudi Arabia. At an OPEC meeting in the run-up to the election, the group’s dominant producer, Saudi Arabia, shelved plans to restrict oil production to counteract the rapid decline in world prices, allowing them to continue to fall. This has brought considerable benefits to the oil-importing advanced economies — including Japan.
Had the Saudis decided to reduce output, Japan would have suffered the double blow of increased oil prices and a sudden sharp depreciation of the yen. That would have exposed Abe’s government to widespread criticism, particularly in automotive industry hubs.
The second important actor in Abe’s campaign was China. The appearance of more than 200 ships harvesting precious red coral around Japan’s Ogasawara islands in November opened the eyes of many Japanese to the risks of China’s growing power. Such skepticism about China’s peaceful intentions has intensified criticism of the DPJ for what many consider an excessively soft approach to managing relations with Beijing.
The third important actor was Japan’s labor unions. The current problem facing Abenomics, as it aims to save Japan’s economy from deflation, is that wage hikes have not kept pace with the April 2014 consumption-tax increase (from 5 percent to 8 percent) or the rise in import prices associated with a weaker yen.
Organized labor’s representatives in wage negotiations, which are conducted every spring, usually come from unions that support the DPJ. But Abe himself has supplanted the unions in demanding big pay rises from companies, helping him to attract significantly more votes from union members in this election than in 2011.
These three players’ interventions have helped Abe secure four more years in power. After decades of rotating leadership, with eight prime ministers in just 10 years, Japan finally has a stable government. Though Japan’s parliamentary system distinguishes it from its neighbors, this aligns more closely with norms in the region, where presidential executives serve for six years in Russia and five years in South Korea and China. (North Korea’s leader, of course, has no fixed term in office.)
Abe now has more political capital — and thus more freedom to maneuver — than perhaps any Japanese leader since the end of the Pacific War.
He must use it to follow through on the promise of Abenomics finally enacting the structural reforms that Japan needs to reinvigorate its economy. With such a powerful mandate, there can be no excuses.
Yuriko Koike, a former defense minister and national security adviser, was chairwoman of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party’s General Council and currently is a member of the Lower House. © Project Syndicate, 2014.
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