As Japan goes to the polls, it's not just 'the economy, stupid'

Prime Minister Abe says he's seeking public backing for his plan to pull the world's third-largest economy out of its extended doldrums. But his agenda includes more controversial issues.

Yuya Shino/Reuters
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (right, in white jacket) campaigned in Saitama, north of Tokyo, ahead of Dec. 14's lower house election. The election is seen as a referendum on Mr. Abe's economic policies.

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe leads a coalition government with an unassailable parliamentary majority. He is only two years into his term in office, and faces an opposition barely worthy of the name.

So why are Japanese going to the polls Sunday, for the second time in just two years?

It is a question voters are struggling to answer. Few are convinced by Mr. Abe’s contention that the vote is just about public backing for his growth-centered economic policy – the three “arrows” of monetary easing, stimulus, and structural reform. Most opposed his decision last month to call a snap election. The predictions are of a woefully low turnout, especially given the virtual certainty that his party will win.

But by staying away from the polls in the millions on Sunday, Japan’s voters may be handing Abe another four years to push through controversial changes that lie at the heart of his conservative project, says James Schoff, senior associate in the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. That will only reinforce the perception – at least among embattled liberals – that the country is returning to its post-1955 status as a de facto one-party state as the opposition flounders, he says.

Early next year, the prime minister is expected to give final approval to the restart of two nuclear reactors, despite opposition from a majority of voters. Japan’s atomic plants have been largely idle since the March 2011 triple meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant after a devastating earthquake and tsunami.

Abe has conceded defeat over another key interest: revision of the US-authored Constitution, which would require a two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament and a simple majority in a nationwide referendum.

“Unfortunately I don't think there is a growing desire for constitutional change among the public," Abe said during an election debate. But, he added: "We have finally built a bridge that we can cross toward constitutional revision."

Earlier this year, Abe secured cabinet approval to introduce legislation, possibly next year, to lift the postwar ban on collective self-defense – a move that critics have slammed as constitutional reform by the back door. That would allow Japanese troops to come to the aid of an ally under attack – most likely the United States – and fight on foreign soil for the first time since the end of World War II.

But the economy matters

The economy, of course, has been a central issue since Abe took office and pressed forward with “Abenomics.” 

On the same day he called the election, Abe postponed a rise in the sales tax, originally planned for next October, for 18 months. An increase in the same tax this April hit consumer spending and has been blamed for Japan’s slide into recession in the third quarter.

In postponing the tax increase, Abe defied fiscal hawks in his own party who want to prioritize raising revenue to meet growing welfare costs and start paying off Japan’s huge public debt.

Yet, as Abe has reminded voters in TV campaign ads, no one has offered an alternative to “Abenomics” – certainly not the biggest opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan, which is still recovering from its crushing defeat in December 2012.

But even with long-term policies at stake, this election’s debate is hardly the stuff of good, old-fashioned political knockabout. Small wonder the public is underwhelmed.

“Japanese voters simply aren’t interested in this election,” says Takao Toshikawa, editor in chief of Insideline and a respected political pundit. “In fact, we will probably see the lowest turnout since the current political system came into being in 1955. I think it will be below 50 percent.”

Mr. Toshikawa believes that Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party could secure well over 300 seats, perhaps even obtaining the magic 317 seats that would give it a two-thirds majority in the lower house without the additional votes of its coalition partner, Komeito.

“LDP success would likely coincide with continued floundering and incoherence among the opposition, which is not healthy for the country’s democracy in the long term,” Mr. Schoff wrote this week. “In this sense, the election could have a notable impact on Japan’s political future.”

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