Brown University

Mr. Thirty Percent: How did Abe Manage to Win Reelection? by Jonathan Silin @ Brown University

In my previous post, I discussed the fact that while Abe employs populist-leaning tendencies in his policymaking, he himself is not a populist. Nevertheless, Abe’s rule has not been benign for democracy. This post will examine the mechanisms behind how Abe (and by extension the LDP as a whole) has managed to stay in power despite having policies that are regarded as both unpopular and anti-democratic.

As predicted, on October 22, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe won reelection in a contentious snap election. This makes him the first Prime Minister to win three consecutive terms since 1953 and put him on course to become the longest serving Prime Minister of all time. Abe’s conservative Liberal Democratic Party also exceeded expectations in the House of Representatives, winning 284 out of the 233 seats needed for majority (over 33 percent of the vote). Coupled with the results of the LDP’s coalition partner, the Komeito Party, the group was successful enough to secure a two-thirds super majority. The two closest runners-up, the newly formed Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and the Party of Hope received 20 and 17 percent of the vote, respectively. The results led many scholars, including Sophia University political scientist Koichi Nakano to dub Japan “the world’s only liberal democracy that’s also practically a one-party state”. Yet underneath this veneer of triumph is a contradiction. Abe’s numbers at the polls have been horrendous, with support below 30 percent for much of the last year. To understand the context of Abe’s perplexing victory, it is important to understand the nature of Abe’s democratic infractions which have largely been driving his negative numbers at the polls. They can be categorized into three separate areas:

1) Cronyism: In March, Abe was hit with accusations that he had used his position of power to help purchase land for an ultra-nationalist pre-school at a heavily discounted price. When called before the Diet, the school’s founder gave sworn testimony that Akie Abe, Shinzo Abe’s wife, who for a time was an honorary principle at the school, gave a ¥1 million donation to the school in her husband’s name. A similar scandal emerged in July, when Abe was called before the Diet to answer accusations that he had used his power to bypass the Education Ministry’s approval needed for the construction of a friend’s veterinary school. While Abe repeatedly denied both claims, leaked documents appear to provide proof to the contrary.

2) Military Cover-ups: As per the stipulations of its pacifist constitution, Japanese troops are prohibited from engaging in any form of combat. Japan has supplied over 350 Special Defense Forces (SDF) soldiers to the UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan to assist mainly with infrastructure development. When news that Japanese SDF troops were routinely involved in combat-level rescue missions, controversy broke out. Defense minister Tomomi Inada refused to label the conflict as “fighting”. Since Japanese SDF troops have a strict mandate to not engage in any sort of combat, this would have forced Abe’s government to return its troops to Japan. The defense ministry’s cover-up of the incident, claiming the peacekeepers’ daily activity logs which contained references to combat activity had been thrown out, was seen as an illicit attempt to salvage what many saw as the first steps of Abe’s larger plan to remilitarize Japan.

3) Encroachment on constitutional rights: In June, the LDP-dominated Upper House of the Diet passed the sweeping Anti-Conspiracy Bill, supposedly aimed at improving security ahead of the 2020 Olympics. Listing 277 offenses ranging from plotting organized crime to picking mushrooms in protected forests, the bill has been met with harsh criticism. Not only did the it spark nationwide citizen protests, it also prompted the UN Special Rapporteur on Privacy, to write a letter to Shinzo Abe lambasting the legislation, saying it would “lead to undue restrictions to the rights to privacy and to freedom of expression”.

This recent wake of scandals and controversies dealt a blow to Abe. In July, his approval ratings fell below 30%, into the “death zone”, making him only the second Japanese Prime Minister to win reelection after posting such numbers. In a Pew Research Poll, 77% of Japanese citizens indicated they viewed democracy as the best system of governance. Yet, clearly, many of Abe’s policies are contrary to the ideas of open democracy. And with the LDP having been in power for almost a half-century, the notion of Japan as a healthy pluralist democracy seems to be waning. So why do Japanese citizens vote against their own values and continually elect Abe and the LDP, especially when their approval ratings of both are so direly low? The answer lies in the sorry state of the opposition parties. The ineptitude of the opposition in the October election stems from three decisive factors:

1) The collapse of the Democratic Party: Formed in 1996 by hodgepodge of ex-LDP members, left-wing socialists, technocrats and national security hawks, the Democratic Party has from its inception had difficulty delivering a coherent message. As one Japan expert put it, “The most that the DPJ’s members have ever agreed on is their opposition to LDP rule”. Nevertheless, the Democratic Party ruled Japan from 2009 to 2012 and has been Japan’s second largest party for years. Poor handling of the budget deficit led voters to reinstate the LDP in 2012. Things deteriorated on September 28th when the Party announced that it would abandon plans to contest the upcoming snap election. The Party split into two factions: center-right politicians defected to Yuriko Koike’s rightwing Party of Hope and the party’s liberal members formed the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) led by Yukio Edano, a mere twenty-four days before the October 22 election. It is not difficult to see how a party cobbled together at the last minute would have difficulty securing votes.

2) Japan’s electoral system: Two-thirds of parliamentary seats are awarded in a winner-takes-all format. Since this structure demands robust institutional presence on behalf of challenging parties, it tends to favor incumbents. This explains how it would be particularly difficult for the newly formed CDP and Party of Hope to break through. Had the Democratic Party bifurcated itself in the first place, perhaps more seats could have been secured.

3) The North Korean issue: Japan’s left wing and centrist parties have generally shied away from discussing the North Korean threat in any meaningful way. However in the wake of two missile launches this summer, this silence seems to have been misguided in the eyes of a the weary Japanese electorate. Abe, on the other hand, has taken a hawkish tone, making the case along the lines of: “Japan is in the middle of a national security crisis so let’s not leave it to any upstart opposition parties”. Clearly, this strategy has paid off.

Some may point to success of Abe’s economic policy as the catalyst for his electoral victory. However this argument is incorrect. While Japan’s economy has indeed posted growth for seven straight quarters, the majority of Japanese citizens are skeptical of “Abenomics”. Abe, “Teflon Shinzo,” as the Japanese press often calls him, was able to survive another election and multiple scandals simply because the Japanese electorate felt it had no other option. While Abe’s polling was certainly abysmal it was never as low as the 5 percent approval held by the Democratic Party in July. Thus, it is important to remember that such a nickname is not so much a sign of his strength but rather the weakness and the ineptitude of his political rivals. Had a stronger and more coherent opposition contested the general election, Abe would have been ousted from power. Yet, the October elections seem to have cast a dark pall over that state of democracy in Japan. Is perhaps the snap election itself just another example of Abe exploiting a loophole in the democratic process? Regardless, the lesson learned is clear: if Japan’s opposition parties fail to galvanize voters and overcome the country’s incumbent-biased electoral system, checks and balances will continue to erode. The future of a truly democratic Japan hangs in the balance.


* Photo by Tim. “Tonami Afternoon – Shinzo Abe”. (Flickr). Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 

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