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Politics

Abe’s Gamble: Snap Election in Japan

“I need to hear the voice of the people,” said Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. “I will step down if we fail to keep our majority because that would mean our Abenomics is rejected.” And with that feeble excuse he announced that he was calling an election two years earlier than necessary, on 14 December.

“Abenomics”, the prime minister’s  drastic strategy for kick-starting Japan out of twenty years of deflation and economic stagnation, has not actually been rejected by the public, but it is failing nevertheless. After an initial burst of growth last year, Japan has fallen into a recession despite the trillions of yen that the central bank has pumped into the economy.

Japanese voters would love to see “Abenomics” succeed. It’s no fun living in a no-growth economy, and Abe’s plan was the first they had seen in a long time that had even a chance of turning that around. But two years in the kick-start has stalled, and Abe’s public approval rating recently fell below 50 percent for the first time. Maybe he’s just going for another four years now because he fears that later the prospects will be even worse.

To be fair to the prime minister, “Abenomics” didn’t actually cause the recession. The problem was that Abe raised the sales tax from 5 percent to 8 percent last April, in obedience to a law passed by the previous government. Unfortunately, Japanese consumers responded by cutting their spending, especially on big-ticket items – and so the economy tumbled into recession.

Abe has learned his lesson, and he is now promising that the scheduled second rise in the sales tax next year, from 8 percent to 10 percent, will be postponed until 2017 if he wins the election. In fact, he is portraying the election as a referendum on whether the public wants him to kill the next tax rise – as if they were likely to demand that he go ahead with it.

If he can keep the debate centred on the economy, Abe should cruise to an easy victory, for the opposition parties are divided and disorganised and have no plausible alternative solution. However, if the focus shifts to Abe’s plans to restart the country’s nuclear power stations and remove the pacifist elements from the Japanese constitution, the election’s outcome will get much harder to predict.

On the nuclear issue, as on the sales tax, Abe is doing the sensible thing. Nuclear power used to provide 30 percent of Japan’s electrical power, and the shutdown of all the country’s reactors has compelled it to spend huge amounts of money on imported energy.

It’s now high time to turn the nuclear reactors on again. But the Japanese public, post-Fukushima, has an acute nuclear allergy, and the opposition to re-starting the reactors is large, vocal, and well-organised. If that becomes a central election issue, Abe will lose a lot of votes.

And then there’s the constitutional question. Abe has long detested the constitution, written by Americans during the post-1945 occupation, that forbids Japan to send military forces abroad. He says he wants to rewrite it to allow Japan to send its troops to the aid of allies who are under attack. His critics see it as the entering wedge for a full-scale remilitarisation of the country.

“The global situation surrounding Japan is getting ever more difficult,” Abe said in a televised press conference last summer, in an attempt to justify his proposed constitutional changes. He was really talking about the growing tension and even hostility between Tokyo and Beijing, of course, and China’s Xinhua news agency replied with an editorial that verged on the hysterical.

Abe is “leading his country on a dangerous path” by “gutting the constitution,” Xinhua wrote. “No matter how Abe glosses over it, he is dallying with the spectre of war.” And it really doesn’t help that some of Abe’s hard-right friends and political associates dabble in anti-Chinese invective and deny Japan’s war crimes before and during the Second World War.

There are a great many people in Japan who find this attempt to change the constitution frightening. Nobody knows exactly how many (it depends on how the opinion pollsters pose the question), but it may well be a majority. So Abe really needs to keep this from becoming the dominant issue in the election.

The fact that it will be a relatively short campaign helps Abe, but if these two issues catch fire he will be in serious difficulty. It’s unlikely that his Liberal Democratic Party, in power for 53 of the past 59 years, will actually lose control of the Lower House of the Diet, but it could lose enough seats to force him to drop his nuclear and constitutional projects.

And there is an outside chance that he could actually lose the election.
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Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“The global…War”)