As Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition continues to bask in the glow of its seemingly unrivaled hold on power, one focus of attention in the domestic political scene this year is whether or when he will dissolve the Lower House for another snap election — a prospect that looks set to intensify now that the four-year tenure of the current members of the chamber has passed the halfway point.
Since returning to the helm of government in late 2012, Abe has led his Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito alliance to an unbroken spell of landslide wins in national elections. The LDP is readying a change in its rules so that Abe can run for another term as party president next year, which could keep him in office through 2021. Abe indeed appears to dominate the nation’s political landscape.
But voters, as they brace for another possible general election, should not be blinded by the prime minister’s success; instead they should make a sober assessment of what the four years of Abe’s administration have brought to the nation and their lives.
Earlier speculation that Abe might dissolve the Lower House as early as this month — at the outset of the regular Diet session that opens in late January — seems to have dissipated, as the LDP reportedly determined, based on its own survey, that the party stands to lose some seats if an election is held at this point. The prevailing theory now is that the election will be held this fall or even later — with the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election in the summer possibly serving as a precursor to the race.
As the prospect of a general election simmers on, the opposition camp does not appear ready yet to take on the ruling coalition at the ballot box. The biggest problem is that the Democratic Party remains undecided on whether to cooperate with the campaigns of other opposition parties, including the Japanese Communist Party.
Campaign cooperation among the opposition forces in the Upper House election last July — in which the parties avoided competing with each other to back joint candidates in crucial electoral districts — resulted in partial success by denting the ruling alliance’s sweep of such constituencies.
But the DP is reluctant to pursue joint campaigning in the next Lower House election — mainly because the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo), the leading opposition party’s key organized supporter, is opposed to campaign cooperation with the JCP.
There is little prospect, however, that the DP acting alone in the next election would pose any significant threat to the LDP-Komeito alliance. Leaders of the party should be reminded that the weak and splintered state of the opposition camp has been a key factor that has allowed Abe’s ruling coalition to dominate Diet proceedings and key election outcomes for the past four years — and will likely continue to do so.
While the Abe administration may not be confronted with much of a political challenge at home, it could be headed for turbulence in the diplomatic front.
One major — and immediate — challenge will be relations with the United States under the incoming administration of Donald Trump. Abe, who was the first foreign leader to meet with Trump after his upset victory in the November election, plans to call on the new U.S. president following his Jan. 20 inauguration.
By holding talks with Trump for the second time in just three months — and following up on his meeting in Hawaii in late December with outgoing President Barack Obama — Abe apparently hopes to confirm that Japan’s security alliance with the U.S. will remain solid under the Trump presidency.
However, weeks before he is to take office, Trump’s views on the security alliance, or U.S. relations with Japan in general for that matter, remain largely unclear. What little has been made known about his views on Japan includes his campaign remark urging Tokyo to pay more for the cost of deploying American troops in the country under the security alliance.
Abe called Trump a “trustworthy leader” and said he felt confident of building “a relationship of trust” with the president-elect following their November talks, whose details have not been disclosed.
Soon after their meeting, however, Trump said he would fulfill his campaign promise of pulling the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal on the day he takes office, making it all but certain that the agreement, which Abe deemed crucial to his attempt to revive the Japanese economy and rushed to get the Diet to ratify last month, is doomed.
The incoming Trump administration and its unpredictable policies could put not only the Japan-U.S. bilateral relationship but also the Asia-Pacific regional diplomatic landscape in uncharted territory.
How the government should respond to the turbulence will be the nation’s key diplomatic challenge this year.