Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has announced his intention to dissolve the Lower House for a snap election. When his Liberal Democratic Party suffered a devastating loss in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly race in July and the popular approval ratings of his Cabinet plunged to its worst levels, it almost looked as if the days of his administration might be numbered. However, changes in various circumstances since then have led the prime minister to again go on the offensive.
First is the rise in international tensions over North Korea. The Abe administration has fueled public anxiety over North Korea’s repeated missile firings and nuclear weapons tests and took advantage of the tension to rally popular support for the government. Abe devoted his speech at the United Nations General Assembly in New York to condemning the North Korean regime.
Echoing the belligerent tone of U.S. President Donald Trump, he called it useless to seek dialogue with Pyongyang and called for greater pressure on the regime — in stark contrast with leaders of such countries as Russia and Germany who emphasized the need for a diplomatic solution. Foreign Minister Taro Kono prodded nations that hold diplomatic relations with North Korea to sever their ties, exposing a lack of understanding of diplomacy.
The remarks made by these Japanese leaders on the diplomatic stage were not meant to search for a solution to the problem but to create stinging sound bites meant for their domestic audience. A lazy way of thinking seems to have permeated leading figures in the administration that strongly condemning North Korea would earn them support at home.
The second development is the confusion in the opposition camp. Seiji Maehara, who took over as head of the Democratic Party in early September, stumbled in the fiasco over his choice of the party’s new secretary-general and has been unable to lift its sluggish support among voters. Maehara also said he would review the agreement that his predecessor Renho reached with three other opposition parties for campaign cooperation, sounding particularly negative about cooperating with the Japanese Communist Party. If the opposition camp is to remain divided, the chances of another landslide for the LDP will increase.
The election Abe is calling is intended first to evade the opposition charges against his administration over the Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Gakuen scandals and avoid greater scrutiny. The second and even larger intention is Abe’s bid to retain his hold on power while at the same time pursuing revision of the Constitution.
Until last month, it was widely thought that Abe would will find it difficult to both keep his grip on power and seek constitutional revision. When Abe’s public support sharply declined, Komeito, the LDP’s junior partner in the ruling coalition, made clear its reluctance toward changing the Constitution, while some lawmakers within the LDP began openly challenging the prime minister’s quest for an amendment.
Questions even began to surface whether Abe would survive the LDP’s presidential race next year for a third term. It was presumed that should Abe hold an early election and manage to retain the coalition’s majority in the Lower House, he could remain LDP president and prime minister — but he would also likely lose its two-thirds majority in the lower chamber, the strength needed to pass an amendment that would then be ultimately decided in a national referendum. But now, with the ratcheted-up tensions over North Korea’s provocations and the opposition camp in even deeper disarray, a snap election may enable Abe to score his best results — keeping his grip on power and the ruling coalition’s hold on the two-thirds majority. The prime minister’s abrupt decision to dissolve the Lower House is based on these calculations.
Here we are reminded of how the Nazis took power in Germany in 1933. Adolf Hitler publicized the fire that hit the Reichstag building in Berlin in February that year as arson by communist agitators. In the parliamentary election held the following week, the Nazis captured a near majority and, by capitalizing on national security concerns, succeeded in enacting the Enabling Act, which gave Hitler the right to rule by decree and thus launch his dictatorship. The Nazis won the election by fanning people’s fear and hatred and cornering them into paralysis in their thinking.
Of course, the Diet building in Japan has not been physically attacked. However, an act to dissolve the Lower House at the beginning of a new Diet session — without holding any discussions — amounts to negating the legislature’s functions. The prime minister has highlighted the threat posed by North Korea and fueled people’s fear and hatred. And holding a snap election with this timing is reminiscent of the tactics employed by the Nazis.
If that tactic works, the tragedy of the Weimar Republic of the 1930s might be repeated in 2010s Japan. If it wins big in the upcoming election, the LDP will likely claim that it has obtained a comprehensive mandate for revising the Constitution. In other words, the party will claim to have been given carte blanche for changing the supreme code. This general election will indeed be a race to protect the Constitution.
Jiro Yamaguchi is a professor of political science at Hosei University.