Japan’s snap election is about more than just Abenomics

This is Abe’s best chance at re-election. Toru Hanai /Reuters

The decision by Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, to call a snap election barely two years into a four-year term demonstrates a degree of political flexibility other world leaders can only envy.

Abe did not need to go to the polls until 2016. Instead, he announced on November 18 he would dissolve the lower house of the Japanese Diet a few days later and hold a general election on December 14 2014. There are several reasons behind the decision, including the failure of Abenomics to revive the Japanese economy.

Abenomics is the neologism given to his three-pronged strategy to revitalise Japan’s economy, following the victory of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in the December 2012 general election. It aims to say sayonara to deflation and slow economic growth through fiscal stimulus, monetary easing and structural reform. But the increase in the consumption tax from 5% to 8% in April 2014 contributed to a contraction in the country’s GDP of 1.6% in the third quarter after a whopping 7.3% contraction in the second quarter, putting the economy technically in a recession.

As a result, the prime minister has decided to delay until April 2017 another increase in the consumption tax to 10% scheduled for October 2014, and seek a mandate for the continuation of Abenomics. For the leader of the opposition, Japan Restoration Party, the dissolution of the lower house symbolises the failure of the government’s tax increase.

More than economics

But economics is not the only reason for the prime minister’s decision. While the underlying motivation for calling the election is no doubt the expectation that Japan’s economic fortunes will not revive soon, giving the LDP a better chance of claiming victory now than in the future, the overall political situation makes winning a new mandate much easier.

Although his popularity has started to fall, postponing the increase in the consumption tax will be welcomed by a large number of voters. Besides, the opposition parties are unlikely to be able to take advantage of any downturn in support and form an alternative government to the LDP, whether Abe is again in coalition with his junior partner, the Komei Party, or makes some other political arrangement.

When Abe took office for the second time in 2012, he brought to an end the Democratic Party of Japan’s three years in power – they crashed from 230 to 57 seats. No-one expects a revival of the party’s fortunes this time around. A number of other parties have been splintering and the potential for more change cannot be ruled out. In short, the opposition’s disarray plays into the prime minister’s hands.

The division of public opinion

Still, this does not mean Abe’s policies have gained all-round support, with a number of issues dividing public opinion, especially with regard to security. Significantly, the prime minister has introduced a re-interpretation of the Japanese constitution to permit the Japanese Self-Defence Forces to participate in collective self-defence. This is part of a strategy to promote Japan’s international role, but most importantly signals a deepening and widening of defence cooperation with its ally, the United States.

While the prime minister was ultimately unable to revise the constitution as a result of the opposition as well as public opinion (which shows its strength and opposition to constrain the government’s security policy), collective self-defence has increased tension with some of Japan’s neighbours, especially China and the two Koreas.

But tensions are domestic as well as international. In particular, its alliance with the US is premised on Japan providing bases for the military. These are the source of a great deal of tension, particularly in the parts of the country where the majority are located, namely Okinawa. The government’s attempts to relocate an important base on the island has put it on a collision course with the prefecture. And, the LDP’s candidate lost in a key mayoral election earlier this year and the gubernatorial election that took place just before Abe’s snap announcement, which doesn’t bode well for things to come.

How the conflict over the base relocation in Okinawa is dealt with by the new administration is just as much a part of Japanese democracy as is the forthcoming national election. Its character will help to be determined by the new government’s response to the local calls for a more equitable distribution of the bases, whoever wins power.