A lackluster popular response to Japan’s upcoming snap election

Monzurul Huq
Thursday, October 12th, 2017

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during a press conference. Photo: AP


Japan is getting ready for another snap election that was called late last month by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.  The election call and the subsequent dissolution of the lower house of the Diet have cut short the duration of the parliament by more than a year. This is not unusual in Japan, as throughout the post-World War II period most of the general elections for the lower house were held before the expiry of the mandate of that chamber. According to the Japanese constitution, lower house of the Diet is set to function for four years unless dissolved by a parliamentary decision. However, since the parliamentary democracy everywhere gives the ruling side the undue privilege of dissolving the parliament whenever they find it convenient, there is nothing wrong in calling the election ahead of the schedule. However, the voters, on the other hand, are not always convinced of the necessity of a snap election, particularly when such an election is called what they might see without any valid reason for doing so. This is probably what many in Japan are thinking right now.


Prime Minister Abe’s support rate had been showing a continuous downward swing right from the early days of the year when a series of scandals involving his family and friends came into the limelight of media attraction. Moreover, the emergence of a new conservative political group under the erstwhile Abe ally, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, was also taking away much of the lure from the main ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). So, the prime minister and his coalition government was in defensive for quite some time and Abe must have been calculating when it might suit him best to go for a fresh election before it becomes too late.


The impetus came when the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) plunged into a leadership crisis after the resignation of the party president taking responsibility for the poor performance of the party in last summer’s Tokyo assembly election. The new leader of DPJ, presumably feeling extremely nervous about the prospect of his party’s further fall within the newly intensified competitive field of politics, had taken the naïve initiative of dissolving the party altogether with a call to party members and those who were elected to the Diet in the last election to join the new party launched by the Tokyo governor. Governor Koike, on her part, finding herself in an unexpectedly privileged position, declared that she will scrutinize the membership applications of aspiring DPJ candidates to decide if they would fit in to the party line as had been declared in her policy position. This virtually sealed the fate of DPJ and opened the door for its sad departure from the political scene of Japan after more than two decades of party’s glorious existence. Nobody expected such a sarcastic end of a party that not very long ago was holding two thirds majority in the lower house.


Abe definitely had been keeping a watchful eye on the movements of DPJ with the aim of deciding about the right time to call for the snap election. The turmoil in DPJ prompted him to take the opportunity to strengthen his party’s position at the expense of the crisis laden opposition.


The lower house of the Japanese Diet has already been dissolved and the new voting date is set for October 22. Meanwhile, the emergence of Yuriko Koike’s new party ‘Hope’ has all of a sudden upset Abe’s calculations, as it now stands as an irritation for the prime minister on realizing his goal of strengthening his party’s position in the lower house. Koike has emerged as a viable option before the voters at a time when LDP had been showing signs of decline.


But the problem for Japan is, with the departure of DPJ from the political scene, the voters are left with no real choice to make from the existing candidates. Since Hope’s declared policy and party’s conservative line differ less from those of the LDP, Japanese electorates hardly have a real choice in true sense. Understanding this dilemma that voters might have been facing, a group of disappointed DPJ Diet members have announced the launching of a new liberal political party under the leadership of former chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano. The new block intends to form an election alliance with other progressive groups like the Japanese Communist Party and the Socialist Party. But how far this group will be able to attract most of the former DPJ supporters is not clear yet.


Meanwhile, voters in Japan are showing no real sign of enthusiasm about the upcoming election. Many might have been thinking that the whole show is all about political infighting of big players that are less appealing to them. Not a good sign for Japan at a time when the situation calls for a greater participation of people.


Election on Japan follow very strict norms and rules set by the independent election committee. The official campaign period is set to start from October 10 and ends 24 hours before the start of vote casting. The campaign is also regulated through officially sanctioned posters and leaflets for each candidate and all candidates need to submit a balance sheet of their election related expenditure. However, the greatest obstacle in recent time has been voters’ apathy. Not many in Japan are keen on using their right to vote, a trend that mostly goes in favor of the ruling group. This time too it is highly possible that a low voter turnout will boost LDP’s chance to continue as the main ruling party. But the big puzzle that remains unsolved is if the party is going to increase its tally in the lower house or not. If not, there is every possibility that Abe might come under strong criticism from within the party, which eventually might force him to pave the way for a new leadership to take over. To see if this is going to happen or not, we need to wait for two more weeks. n


(Tokyo, October 8, 2017)

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