Judging the Abe administration

The Oct. 22 Lower House election will give voters a chance to hand down their judgment on the nearly 5-year-old administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — and their verdict on whether he should stay in office and continue with his policies. The quick and surprising developments in Nagatacho since he made the decision to dissolve the Lower House for a snap election — in particular the launch of a new party by Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike and the effective disbandment of the No. 1 opposition Democratic Party, with most of its members flocking to Koike’s upstart party — have grabbed a great deal of public attention in recent weeks. However, voters should see through these moves and identify what each party stands for in substance so they can make a rational decision at the ballot box. With the official campaign kicking off Tuesday, they have been given 12 days.

When Abe made up his mind last month to gamble on a snap election, he obviously intended to catch the opposition off guard and maximize his Liberal Democratic Party’s gains — or minimize its losses — by holding the race while his opponents were unprepared, with popular support for his administration fast recovering after hitting all-time lows just a few months earlier. Hard on the heels of a leadership change, the DP was in tatters with the continuing exodus of its lawmakers. The popular Tokyo governor, whose fledgling local party upstaged the LDP in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election in July, had yet to make the much-anticipated move to launch a national party. Abe’s emphasis on North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats and Japan’s demographic challenges as “national crises,” and the need for a fresh mandate from voters to address them on a solid political footing, was hardly convincing as a reason for holding a sudden election.

That gamble appeared to have backfired when Koike’s new Kibo no To (Party of Hope) quickly developed into the main contender to Abe’s ruling coalition by absorbing many DP lawmakers and candidates. Most of the DP lawmakers have effectively ditched their opposition to Abe’s security legislation enacted in 2015 to hitch a ride on the popular governor’s bandwagon. However, Koike’s rejection of DP members who refused to endorse her positions on defense and constitutional revision and went on to establish the splinter Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) — along with her own decision not to run in the general election despite heading the main contender to the ruling camp — seem to have already taken some of the steam out of public expectations for her party ahead of the election.

While saying that it wants to take power in this election, Kibo no To has not specified whom it will back in the post-election Diet vote to choose the prime minister — Koike says the party will reach its decision depending on the outcome of the Lower House race. While Koike, an LDP Lower House member until she ran for governor in 2016, calls for ending Abe’s dominant grip on power through the election, there is speculation that her party may explore an alliance with part of the LDP. This ambiguity leaves the position of Koike’s party difficult to understand, including vis-a-vis the LDP.

Kibo no To has distanced itself from the LDP on some key policies. It has called for a freeze on the next consumption tax hike to 10 percent, now scheduled for October 2019 after being twice postponed by Abe, and promises to phase out nuclear power by 2030. The Abe administration calls nuclear a key “baseload power” source that should account for roughly 20 percent of the nation’s electricity supply that year.

On amending the Constitution, another issue that sharply divides the parties, Kibo no To says it will move discussions forward for an amendment, including on war-renouncing Article 9. While the party’s campaign platform says it will discuss how the Constitution should fit the times, including recognizing the existence of the Self-Defense Forces, Koike has criticized Abe’s earlier proposal to add a new provision legitimizing the SDF while keeping the original text of Article 9 intact. The new CDP opposes an amendment that effectively endorses the security legislation, whereas the LDP’s coalition partner, Komeito, is more cautious toward revising Article 9, with its leader Natsuo Yamaguchi saying that popular understanding for such an amendment remains insufficient.

The rapid realignment of the opposition camp in recent weeks has energized political discussions — and likely raised the stakes in the general election. However, voters should not be overly distracted by dramatic developments and instead should scrutinize what each party and candidate stands for.