Election preview: Japan

Japan goes to the polls tomorrow (Sunday) in its third successive early election; called, like the last one, by prime minister Shinzo Abe to take advantage of favorable political conditions.

In office for almost five years (plus a brief term of a year in 2006-07), Abe has been one of Japan’s most electorally successful leaders. While five years might not sound like much, Japan has a long history of rapid turnover at the top. Since the end of the Second World War it has had 32 prime ministers in 72 years, an average of less than two and a half years each.

Change in personnel, however, has gone together with institutional stability. Apart from two short intervals, Abe’s centre-right Liberal Democratic Party has been in office continuously since it was formed in 1955. It is perhaps the most successful political party in the democratic world.

There is nothing in this election that looks likely to disturb the pattern. For a time, there was excitement concerning Yuriko Koike, the current governor of Tokyo, who broke away from the LDP to form a new conservative opposition party, the Party of Hope. But her initially strong polling has not been sustained.

On the other side of the spectrum, a new party, the Constitutional Democratic Party, has succeeded the liberal wing of the old Democratic Party (after the conservative wing joined the Party of Hope). It is operating in a loose alliance with the centre-left Social Democratic Party and the Japanese Communist Party.

Recent polling has the LDP (together with its ally Komeito) winning something like half the vote, with the rest split fairly evenly between conservative and centre-left challengers. One of the reasons for the LDP’s long dominance, however, has been the fact that the electoral system is heavily tilted in its favor. On figures like that, there is no doubt it would win a large majority, as it did last time.

Which is rather a pity, because (quite apart from the demands of democracy) the Abe government would probably benefit from a stronger opposition presence. A key excuse for this election is Abe’s desire for a mandate to revise article 9 of the Japanese constitution, which outlaws the Japanese military.

In reality, that has not prevented Japan from maintaining armed forces, but it has at least served to restrain their expansion – to the inestimable benefit of the Japanese economy, as well as to the maintenance of peace in the region. Abe now proposes to throw away those advantages.

But it has certainly seemed in the past that article 9 is more popular with the Japanese people than with their politicians. So it’s still possible that enough of them will rally tomorrow to the centre-left to prevent Abe from retaining the two-thirds majority that he needs for constitutional revision.

Walter Hamilton’s preview at Inside Story is particularly good.



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