Japan’s Election Without a Cause

The Japanese economy has slipped into recession, so Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has dissolved parliament and called for a snap general election scheduled for Dec. 14.

Say what?

It is unusual to say the least for a government to voluntarily call for a general election in the wake of bad economic news. The premier said he will seek a “mandate” to postpone a projected increase in the national sales tax.

Say what, again?

Since when does a parliamentary leader need a voter mandate to postpone a tax rise, when everybody, including the main opposition, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), is also against the tax rise?

Little wonder that Yukio Edano, secretary-general of the democrats, has called this polling exercise “an election without a cause”.

Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has an overwhelming majority in the House of Representative, the lower house of Japan’s bicameral parliament as a result of his party’ electoral blowout almost two years ago. It has 295 seats in the 480-seat body – 326 with its coalition partner.

The current parliament still has two years on its term, and there is no real prospect that Abe could lose such an overwhelming majority – or, for that matter, to realistically expect to improve on it in another election. The Liberal Democratic Party could forfeit 50-60 seats and still hold power. So what’s behind this election?

The simplest explanation is that Abe is calling for an election because he can. As prime minister in a parliamentary system, he has absolute discretion to call for an election any time he wants for any reason.

Presumably, he calculates that the time is ripe now as the opposition is still weak, scattered, and disunited from its big defeat in 2012 and thus not in a position to mount a serious challenge next month.

Opposition leader Edano would like everyone to know that his party is united and ready for electoral combat, although he also admits that its realistic goal is to simply improve its position in parliament and be in a position to be a real check on the government.

Two years ago the election was marked by the emergence of “third force” parties, such as the Japan Restoration party led by Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, which some observers thought might garner 100 seats but in any case ended up with a respectable 50.

But the Restoration Party (restyled Japan Innovation Party) has split and is crashing, as are other minor parties. That should provide both LDP and the main opposition opportunities to pick up more seats.

None of the parties with a genuine chance of gaining seats is fielding candidates in every constituency, so there will be much strategizing and mutual back-scratching. Only the Japanese Communist Party runs candidates in every one of the 295 single-member districts, though they don’t win any.

No matter what Abe says, this election will inevitably be a judgment on his signature policy, the economic revitalization program known as “Abenomics” after the PM himself.

Abenomics has been faltering and Abe may hope that a solid victory would give him the political capital to give the program another big push. Depending on which pundit one reads, Abe’s economic program has either stalled or is an outright failure.

Recent economic numbers that show Japan’s growth in the third quarter dropped 1.6 percent coupled with another decline in the preceding quarter creating a harsh market rebuke on the economic policy.

The current recession can be traced to the government’s decision to implement the first stage, from 5 to 8 percent, of a two-part rise in the sales tax last April. The Abe administration had gambled that any drop in growth from the tax rise would be shallow and transitory. That has proved to be a miscalculation.

One month ago a divided Bank of Japan governing board injected billions of yen into the economy through quantitative easing, as it had done early in the current administration.

But Abe himself has come under criticism for failing to implement the market-opening reforms that constitute the “third arrow” in his three-part economic program.

Early in his administration Abe gave a speech at Guildhall in London where he boasted that his recent blowout election had given him the “political capital” to overcome invested interests and implement his program. But he hasn’t actually fielded much of that supposed capital in confronting opposition to his policies, such as from the powerful farm lobby, which has essentially vetoed his government’s bid to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Abe is vulnerable on other issues, such his decision last July to “reinterpret” the country’s constitution to permit Japanese armed forces to come to the aid of allies, the new official secrets act that comes into effect in December and his desire to re-start some of Japan’s 48 idled nuclear power plants.

All these issues are unpopular and could be used against him with good effect, provided that the opposition can make effective use of them in the short campaign that begins on Dec. 2.

Still, Abe has a lot going for him, Two years into the office, his cabinet’s public approval ratings remain fairly high, in the 40 percent approval range, while that of the opposition trails badly. At this point previous premiers had already resigned due to lack of popular support.

There is one practical aspect to the election that undoubtedly appeals to Abe. The normal term for parliament is four years. In his current term he has already expended two years with two to go. If he wins re-election, his government will be good for the next four years, making him, barring unknowns, one of the longest serving premiers since the war.