Japanese election with a differencePosted: 22/11/2012
By Jens Wardenaer, Research Analyst and Editorial Assistant
Japan is facing another general election in December, after Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda dissolved the Lower House of the Diet last week. Noda – Japan’s sixth premier in as many years – announced his intention to go to the polls during a parliamentary debate, saying: ‘Let’s do it’.
The main campaign issues will be tax and nuclear power. The emergence of a nationalist ‘third force’ involving Shintaro Ishihara, the nationalist former governor of Tokyo is also making this election one to watch. Ishihara triggered the current flare-up with China, and is now helping to challenge the dominance of Japan’s two main groupings: Noda’s ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which is currently in opposition.
Noda had promised LDP leader Shinzo Abe and others in the opposition that he would call the election in return for their support in passing a bill in August to double Japan’s 5% consumption tax by 2015.
The Japanese economy is now in its third recession since 2008. With public debt standing at more than 230% of GDP, increasing public revenue is a vital step towards much-needed fiscal reform.
Noda set three preconditions that had to be met before he delivered on his promise to call the election. One condition was for the Diet to pass a deficit-covering bond bill to avert a funding crisis. After a stalemate, the bill was finally passed on 13 November.
Another, a reduction in Diet seats, was passed by the Upper House just hours before Noda announced the Lower House dissolution. Slimming Japan’s parliament from 480 to 475 seats is meant to reduce the disparity in the weight of votes from the least- and most-populated districts.
The vote imbalance led the Supreme Court to declare last year that the system was in a ‘state of unconstitutionality’. However, the election will be held under the old system of 480 seats, which could lead to lawsuits on the constitutionality of the election.
Noda seemed happy to trust Abe’s promise to cooperate on his third precondition: establishing a social-security council.
Noda’s DPJ is widely expected to lose to a coalition led by the LDP. The DPJ is still dealing with the political fallout of the Great Tohoku earthquake and subsequent nuclear explosions at the Fukushima power plant in March 2011. Public anger at the government’s inadequate response to the disasters was one of the factors – along with several broken campaign promises – that led to the resignation of Prime Minister Naoto Kan in August 2011.
After the Fukushima accident, the DPJ is hoping that its pledge to phase out nuclear energy by 2039 will gain popular support, although this date is not soon enough for some. The party has also included Japan’s participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade discussions in its election platform. The TPP is fiercely resisted by Japan’s protectionist and inefficient agricultural sector, but the increased trade it is likely to promote is seen by many as a crucial way for Japan to improve its finances.
Noda’s decision to call a snap election has sparked concern within his own party. Many lawmakers left after the decision to raise the consumption tax, which broke a previous campaign promise. Many of those remaining wanted to delay the election, fearing a devastating defeat; the departure of some of its MPs further reduces the DPJ’s chances of retaining its majority.
LDP president Shinzo Abe – himself a previous prime minister – is therefore likely to become the country’s next premier.
Though Abe is seen as well to the right politically, he was pragmatic in dealing with international issues during his previous tenure from September 2006 to September 2007. He refrained from visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine honouring Japan’s war dead. The shrine, where several Class A war criminals are buried, remains a source of contention for Japan’s neighbours, many of whom feel that Tokyo has not faced up to its expansionist past. However, his visit to the shrine in October and his promise to do ‘everything in his power’ to change the situation in Tibet during the Dalai Lama’s recent visit to Japan further antagonised China, and, should he become prime minister again, he may find it difficult to work with the new leadership in Beijing.
The LDP is campaigning on the ‘rebirth’ of Japan’s economy, education and diplomacy. Apart from a tougher stance on China and possibly on South Korea, both of which are in involved in territorial disputes with Japan, the LDP wants to delay the consumption-tax hike until the country has recovered from its deflationary trend. An Abe premiership may also see the Bank of Japan adopt a pro-quantitative easing approach to help combat deflation, as the government will have a strong say in choosing the bank’s next governor in 2013. LDP ally New Komeito is likely to campaign on relief measures for low-income households after the tax increase. Both parties voted for the tax rise.
While the DPJ wants to abandon nuclear power by 2039, the LDP sees the scrapping of Japan’s major source of energy as unrealistic. It would have a huge impact on Japan’s energy security, as the country already relies a great deal on imported oil and gas. The LDP, which has traditionally had strong support in rural areas, is also against joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
But both main parties are unpopular, and a new right-wing party emerged last week that could play a decisive role in the election. Two days after forming the Sunrise Party last week, nationalist former Tokyo governor Ishihara decided to merge it with the Tax Cut Japan party, before changing his mind and joining forces with the newly created Japan Restoration Party, as expected.
The move unites Ishihara with another high-profile nationalist, Toru Hashimoto, the mayor of Osaka and Restoration’s leader. Although the newly merged party has some internal policy differences on the TPP, consumption tax and nuclear power, a recent poll put it on a projected 15% share of the vote, just one point behind the DPJ.
People’s Lives First (PLF) is the centrist grouping of former DPJ leader and LDP member Ichiro Ozawa, who was among those leaving the DPJ after the consumption-tax increase. Ozawa was acquitted in a campaign financing scandal on 13 November, but remains unpopular with the public.
Five other minor parties will play a smaller role in the campaign, which officially begins on 4 December.