Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, stunned the country last Thursday by dissolving the lower house of parliament and setting a general election for 22 October. The decision comes amid higher approval ratings and is an apparent scheme to save Abe’s government which had been deteriorating in the preceding months.
Despite significant disillusionment with Abe, Japanese voters widely see no credible alternative. Unfortunately, this is no irregular blip in the system, but representative of a status quo that has maintained the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in its position of power for approximately six decades with few interludes.
The LDP, founded through a merger of two conservative parties in 1955, has ruled Japan almost as unceasingly as the Communist Party has in China. The 1955 System which, embedded the LDP at Japan’s political apex, was drafted by Nobusuke Kishi, Abe’s maternal grandfather. Despite being imprisoned on war crimes charges, Kishi became prime minister in 1957. Kishi’s brother succeeded the position in the 1960s and 1970s. This multi-generational continuity is noted in Japanese politics, with Yukio Hatoyama, the grandson of LDP Prime Minister Ichiro Hatoyama, unseating the LDP as the head of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in 2009.
In recent decades, almost every new political party has broken away from the LDP. Between familial ties and common beliefs, these have proven difficult to differentiate. Without defining policies citizens can rally behind, voters have opted to support the best organised and most established party—namely, the LDP.
During the Cold War period, as part of a major covert operation, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) also provided millions of dollars in support of the LDP. The money given to party members throughout the 1950s and 1960s was exchanged for information on Japan, making the country a bulwark against communism and undermining the left-wing. The LDP’s 38 years of one-party governance ended in 1993 following a series of corruption cases.
Professor Stephen Nagy of the Department of Politics and International Studies at the International Christian University in Tokyo asserts ‘the US put a lot of political capital into ensuring the LDP was the party in power. Everything else, including nationalism and war crimes, was put aside’. While long speculated by political critics, the LDP has resolutely denied any connection with the CIA. Despite the breadth and depth of US interference, the LDP has lost little credibility in light of these revelations.
In a landslide victory, Prime Minister Abe took office in late 2012 on a campaign platform of kick-starting Japan’s plateaued economy. His policy blitz known as Abenomics combined big government spending, ultra-loose monetary policy and structural reform. While this elevated the stock market and plumped corporate profits, it failed in its objective to overcome deflation—an issue that has plagued Japan for years and stunted economic growth.
Initially, Abe was considered ‘a steady hand whose position appeared unassailable’. However, in July 2017, following several political scandals, there was significant speculation that he had lost his fight for the prime ministership when his government’s popularity dropped close to ‘death zone’ levels.
Earlier this year, Abe was allegedly implicated in a cut-price land deal with Moritomo Gakuen, a nationalist school group. It was later speculated that he approved a new veterinary department for the Kake Gakuen Education Institution, which is directed by his personal friend, Kotaro Kake, despite a consensus that it was unnecessary. There has also been a suspected cover-up by Abe’s former protégé Defence Minister, Tomomi Inada, regarding the worsening security situation in a South Sudan peacekeeping mission involving Japanese soldiers.
There’s some suggestion that Abe faces an unexpected but formidable obstacle in the form of Tokyo’s Governor, Yuriko Koike. The newly-launched Party of Hope has arguably stolen Abe’s limelight, with Koike attracting an influx of lawmakers from various ideological backgrounds, and promising speedy and much-needed reforms.
However, Abe’s responses to North Korea’s provocative actions since July have won him temporary approval from voters. This has spurred widespread suspicion that the snap election decision is little more than an attempt at self-preservation.
Despite the Koike challenge, widespread dissatisfaction with Abenomics and the LDP’s wavering credibility, most believe Abe’s victory and another term for the LDP is all but assured. Kyodo News’ poll indicated support for the Japanese Communist Party at 3.5%, Komeito at 4.6%, Party of Hope at 6.2%, the now-defunct DPJ at 8% and the LDP at 27%. Despite some 42% undecided, the preliminary numbers foretell an Abe victory.
North Korea’s warmongering has shifted Japan’s focus to national security, which plays to Abe’s strengths. This nevertheless presents little hope of averting further economic decline. While many have been lulled into thinking Japan can live in its current political and economic climate, the systemic issues presented by a primary-party framework threaten Japan’s long-term prosperity. Considering Japan’s political history, unfortunately the opportunity to alter this is quickly slipping away.
Georgia Grice is the East Asia Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.