By Jeffrey Hornung, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Jeffrey W. Hornung is an associate professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, HI and an adjunct fellow with the Office of the Japan Chair at CSIS in Washington, D.C. The views expressed in this article are his alone.
This past weekend, the Japanese public went to the polls in their first election since the March 2011 earthquake that triggered a deadly tsunami and nuclear crisis. While many pre-election polls indicated that the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) would return to power, the landslide nature of the LDP’s victory over the Democratic Party of Japan took many by surprise. As the president of the LDP, Shinzo Abe is set to become premier on December 26 for his second stint in office. But although Abe’s LDP secured a majority, the victory should not be viewed as a mandate. Abe would be wise not to rush his conservative agenda.
The election for Japan’s Lower House saw 1,504 candidates run for office, the largest number since World War II. While a handful of these were independents, the others were members of a dozen parties. The result was a very crowded field complete with a dazzling array of policy promises varying from abolishing nuclear energy, strengthening prefectural powers, increased public works spending, halting a planned consumption tax hike, and constitutional revision.
In an election that was touted to be a referendum on things like nuclear energy and the consumption tax, it is surprising the smaller parties that ran on these issues did not do well. For example, the Tomorrow Party of Japan ran on an anti-nuclear platform while the LDP supported restarting nuclear plants. Yet, the Tomorrow Party made few gains. In Fukushima prefecture alone, the epicenter of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, voters elected LDP candidates for 4 of their 5 representatives. In the three prefectures hit hardest by the 2011 disasters, out of 15 seats available, the LDP took 10, the DPJ 4, and the Tomorrow Party only 1. This one seat was won by political kingmaker Ichiro Ozawa, who arguably could have run successfully on any ticket.
So why, if pre-election polls did not indicate overwhelming support for the LDP, did the party win by a landslide, the DPJ lose large numbers, and smaller parties – with the exception of the Japan Renewal Party (JRP) – not do well? Many argue that Abe’s stronger position vis-à-vis China appealed to voters. Others argue voters were angry with Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s decision to raise the consumption tax. Also, some have argued that the Japanese are swinging to the ideological right. Yet, there are reasons to question all of these. While Abe has taken a vocally firm stance against China, just a few months ago Noda took the unprecedented step of nationalizing the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu in Chinese), infuriating Beijing. If voters are upset with the consumption tax, there would have been more support for the Your Party and Tomorrow Party, which opposed the hike, rather than the LDP and Komeito, which helped pass the hike. Finally, if increased nationalism is the cause, we would expect to see more nationwide support for the JRP. Instead, the party’s gains were regionally limited, gaining the most in the Osaka constituency, where the party was formed, and the Kinki regional bloc, where Osaka is located.
It is therefore more accurate to see the results as a rejection of the DPJ, rather than support for the LDP or its policies. The DPJ lost its way. Despite sweeping to power in 2009 with a reformist message, it failed to deliver on its campaign pledges, hurt relations with its U.S. ally, angered its rural-agricultural base by supporting the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and struggled to effectively respond to the March 2011 disasters. There was widespread displeasure with the DPJ’s three years in office and the election was the opportunity to make that sentiment felt. Post-election polls support this sentiment. One Yomiuri Shimbun poll showed that, when asked about the reason for the LDP landslide, 55 percent said they were simply disappointed in the DPJ. Another Asahi Shimbun poll showed that, when asked whether the reason for the LDP victory was because of support for LDP policies or disappointment in the DPJ, 81 percent chose the latter.
Supporting this discontent was that, compared to the other choices, voters found the LDP a more credible alternative. Many of the smaller parties focused on niche issues, like nuclear energy or the consumption tax. Others simply have no track-record of governing. These parties could not convince the public they were viable governing alternatives, ensuring the LDP appeared as the only legitimate choice.
Finally, statistically, one cannot overlook the effect of the large number of parties. The large number running in single-seat districts diffused votes and enabled successful candidates to win with small totals. For example, out of 25 districts in Tokyo, only six districts saw the winning candidate gain more than 50 percent of the vote.
This all contributed to the LDP’s landslide, but it should not be interpreted as a mandate. It was a rejection of other parties, not support for the LDP. Abe’s decision to govern with Komeito ensures that his government can override Upper House opposition to his bills because the parties’ combined strength of 325 seats ensures Abe’s government will have a two-thirds majority (320 needed). Yet, because the victory is not a mandate, he should not rush to implement his conservative agenda. Instead, Abe needs to focus on the economy and employment, which 35 percent of voters (the most of all answers) said was their top interest in the same Asahi poll mentioned above. By contrast, only 12 percent were interested in constitutional revision or national security.
This is important because Abe made constitutional revision and national security issues a priority during the campaign. After winning, Abe said he will focus on revising Article 96 of the constitution to lower the requirement that is needed in both parliamentary chambers to revise the constitution. Currently, a two-thirds majority is needed. He wants a simple majority in each chamber. After getting this revision passed, he would then have a much easier path toward revision on substantial issues. He has also proposed increasing Japan’s defense budget as well as reinterpreting the constitution to allow Japan’s military to engage in collective self-defense, thereby loosening close to six decades of restrictions on the military. Related to these issues are Abe’s personal views of history and Japanese education. He has indicated his desire to revise the Fundamental Law of Education. In his earlier stint as premier, he focused on instilling patriotic education in Japanese children by revising the Law. This time, he wants to revise the textbook screening process to review the clause that states neighboring countries’ feelings must be considered when deciding on textbook contents.
Because he does not have a mandate, Abe should proceed with caution on this more conservative agenda. Voters want their leaders to address Japan’s economic problems. There is a wide array of issues from which he can start: stagnant growth, demographic implosion, rising social welfare costs, inadequate inclusion of women in the economy, mounting public debt, and the continued reconstruction of the Tohoku region. Abe has chosen to focus on Japan’s deflation and will aim at passing a FY2012 supplementary budget and the FY2013 budget to include public works spending. Economists will continue to debate the wisdom of his plans to curb some of the Bank of Japan’s independence, set a 2 percent inflation target, and spend on public works projects that many see as unnecessary and threaten to increase Japan’s debt. The important thing for Abe to keep in mind is that he must deliver results ahead of next summer’s Upper House election. After all, this past week’s election demonstrated how easily voters turn against incumbents that fail to perform.
Given all this, we can expect Abe to put his full attention to the pending budgets to ensure he can claim some successes prior to next summer’s election. At the same time, he will probably avoid contentious issues on his conservative agenda to avoid overreaching. Assuming he can lead the LDP to victory in the Upper House elections, attention will then turn to the more conservative items on his agenda and his pursuit of strengthening Japan’s military profile. If he fails, and fails big, we may be talking about a new premier as soon as next summer.