Japan’s leader may have made the right call after all, if not for his country then for himself. Media polls indicate Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition will handily win a general election Sunday, possibly even retaining its two-thirds majority in the more powerful lower house of parliament.
Japanese voters may not love Abe, but they appear to want to stick with what they know, rather than hand the reins to an opposition with little or no track record. Uncertainly over North Korea and its growing missile and nuclear arsenal may be heightening that underlying conservatism.
“I buy into Prime Minister Abe’s ability to handle diplomacy,” said Naomi Mochida, a 51-year-old woman listening to Abe campaign earlier this week in Saitama prefecture, outside of Tokyo. “I think the most serious threat we face now is the North Korea situation. I feel Prime Minister Abe has been showing the best tactics to handle the situation, compared to other politicians including past prime ministers.”
Abe dissolved the lower house a little more than three weeks ago on the day it convened for a special session, forcing the snap election. The timing seemed ripe for his ruling Liberal-Democratic Party, or at least better than waiting.
Support for Abe’s Cabinet, the standard measure of a government’s popularity in Japan, had bounced back from summertime lows. The main opposition force, the Democratic Party, was in more disarray than usual after its leader had resigned. Holding off would only give a potential rival, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, more time to organize a challenge.
The election is “mainly about the Abe administration trying to lock in its position ... and with success, get Prime Minister Abe re-elected as president of the LDP in September and rule until after the Tokyo Olympics, until 2021,” Michael Green, a Japan expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., said on a call with journalists.
Koike, her hand forced by Abe’s decision, hastily launched a new party to contest the election. Her Party of Hope briefly stole the limelight from Abe, attracting a slew of defectors from the Democrats. Its populist platform includes phasing out nuclear power by 2030, and putting on hold an increase in the consumption tax due in 2019.
But Abe’s gambit appears to be paying off. The initial excitement for the Party of Hope has waned. Koike, the party leader, decided not to run for the 465-seat lower house and won’t even be in Japan on election day. She is heading to Paris for a global conference of mayors that will discuss issues such as climate change.
The Democratic Party has imploded. Its more liberal members have launched yet another grouping, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, which is now outpolling the Party of Hope.
“To be honest, I wish we had strong opposition,” said Ko Horiguchi, a 71-year-old retiree listening to Abe’s campaign speech. “But look at their sorry situation right now.”
For the rest of the world, an Abe victory would likely mean a continuation of the policies he has pursued in the nearly five years since he took office in December 2012.
That includes a hard line on North Korea. Abe says it’s not the time for dialogue and has pushed for tougher sanctions to try to pressure leader Kim Jong Un to abandon the country’s weapons development.
He has backed a loose monetary policy that has boosted the stock market and breathed temporary life into a long-stagnant Japanese economy, though many of the gains haven’t filtered down to working people, raising doubts about the sustainability of the recovery.
A strong election showing would boost Abe’s chances of being reappointed to another three-year term as leader of the Liberal-Democratic Party next September, extending his premiership. That could make Abe the longest-serving prime minister in the post-World War II era.
It would also give him more time to try to win over a reluctant public to his longtime goal of revising the postwar Japanese Constitution. He may get the two-thirds majority he needs in parliament for a constitutional amendment, but any change also needs approval in a public referendum.