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Abe’s early election gambit pays off

Shinzo Abe’s decisive win at the weekend’s Japanese election has given his LDP a mandate for sweeping reform. EPA/Kimimasa Mayama

As widely expected, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has led his conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to a landslide victory in the country’s snap election. The LDP holds a 291-seat majority in the 475-seat lower house of Japan’s parliament, the Diet, after Sunday’s vote.

With the support of its coalition partner the Komeito Party (KP), which won 35 seats, Abe’s government now enjoys a two-thirds supermajority of 326 seats. This will allow the government to amend the Japanese constitution. But Abe’s success was mainly due to the unpreparedness and general disarray of the opposition parties rather than any great enthusiasm for the LDP, which effectively won by default.

Splintered opposition parties

The LDP was aided by a record low voter turnout of only 52.63%. The short, low-key official campaign of only two weeks also enabled the LDP to evade proper scrutiny of its policies and performance.

The widespread apathy of the Japanese electorate has become deeply entrenched. Many felt that this early election was completely unnecessary. The LDP won easily despite the economy having fallen into recession, with real wages in declining.

With a shrinking power base and a dire financial situation, the main opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), could not even afford to run candidates in enough seats to even secure a simple majority in its own right. Despite increasing its number of seats to 73, the DPJ is still a long way from ever returning to government.

The Japanese Communist Party more than doubled its seats to 21, continuing its role as a dissident voice in Japanese politics. However, other minor parties lost support. The populist Japan Innovation Party won 41 seats; the Party for Future Generations, the Social Democratic Party and People’s Life Party only won two seats each; and independents won 18 seats.

All told, the election left Japan’s political opposition as splintered and isolated as ever.

Economic reform

The election was promoted by Abe as a referendum on his economic policies, popularly termed “Abenomics”. Abe has pledged to delay another raise of the consumption tax until 2017 after the last increase from 5% to 8% in April blunted consumption and tipped the economy into recession.

Abe is likely to continue the core policies of Abenomics: the Bank of Japan’s massive quantitative easing and fiscal stimulus spending. But there is speculation that Abe will continue to delay the more complex and wide-ranging “third arrow” of proposed structural reforms, putting off the difficult and unpopular tasks of deregulating the energy, agriculture, health, insurance and finance sectors, and cutting welfare.

The LDP aim to restore the budget to surplus by 2021, but little detail on how it will achieve this was given in the campaign. Abe has said he will push for the completion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations, and he is also determined to restart Japan’s nuclear reactors despite public opposition. Japan will also restructure and continue its “scientific whaling” program.

Implications at home and abroad

With a supermajority in the Diet, Abe will be able to pursue his treasured goal of reinterpreting the constitution to allow Japan to participate in “collective self-defence” with its allies.

The Abe government is also likely to continue to increase defence spending and begin arms exports, which potentially includes submarines being sold to Australia. The LDP also wishes to press ahead with the drawn-out relocation of US bases on Okinawa. This is despite widespread protests from locals who desire the total removal of the American military presence. The LDP lost all four of its Okinawan seats: its only regional setback.

The LDP can now also continue to implement its “state secrets” law. This law, which is already in effect, has harsh penalties of imprisonment for public servants and journalists (and academics) who reveal or criticise classified government information. This law compounds rising fears by lawyers and civil libertarians that the LDP is steadily encroaching on overall freedom of expression, subtly pressuring the media to support a government-friendly perspective.

Following the APEC and G20 summits this year, Abe expressed hopes of improved relations with China and South Korea. But these efforts at reconciliation have been undermined by a number of LDP Diet members who have continued to downplay Japan’s historical record of atrocities in the Second World War.

Abe’s decisive win entrenches his hold on the LDP leadership. It also secures his government’s position through to the next lower house election, which is now due in 2018. This puts him on course to be the longest-serving Japanese prime minister since the 1970s.

The challenge now for Abe will be whether a reboot of Abenomics can see Japan’s economy recover despite being confronted with ongoing deflationary stagnation and long-term population decline. Weak consumption has been further hurt by the rising cost of imports. The yen continues to decline, having fallen 30% against the US dollar since 2012. Japan’s public debt is now 245% of GDP, and will continue growing until a budget surplus is finally achieved.

Nevertheless, Abe is now in an unimpeded position to further unsheath his “fourth arrow” of revitalised Japanese nationalism.

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