In this picture taken on October 18, 2017, a man holds an electoral leaflet showing Japan's Prime Minister and ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) president Shinzo Abe during an election campaign in Saitama.
BEHROUZ MEHRI—AFP/Getty Images
By Charlie Campbell
October 20, 2017

Japan goes to the polls on Sunday to elect a new government, with chaos in the opposition ranks meaning incumbent Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is almost certain to be returned despite his approval rating plummeting to just 26% earlier this year.

An election victory for Abe’s conservative Liberal Democratic Party would make the 63-year-old Japan’s longest-serving post-World War II leader, and inject new impetus into his plans to overhaul Japan’s pacifist constitution and take a continued hard line with North Korea.

Why now?

Abe called the election a year early because the opposition is in disarray.

The liberal Democratic Party has effectively been dissolved and Abe’s most feared political rival, Tokyo’s popular Governor Koike Yuriko, hasn’t had the opportunity to mount a proper challenge with her new Party of Hope, which she launched just as Abe dissolved the national legislature, or Diet. (Abe is caught up in two corruption scandals and some suspect dissolving the Diet was simply a way to avoid a grilling from lawmakers.)

Although Koike leads the Party of Hope, she chose not to stand for the Diet in order to continue running the Japanese capital of 13 million — effectively aborting any power grab.

Victory on Oct. 22 would boost Abe’s chances of being reelected Liberal Democratic Party president in September, thus potentially remaining in power until the year after the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

So an Abe victory is certain?

A fifth of voters remain undecided, but Abe should win. The bigger question is whether he will retain his two-thirds legislative “supermajority.” (Latest polls suggest he will.)

Nevertheless, it has hardly been an inspiring campaign: a majority of backers of his proposal to revise the constitution would prefer he not be the man to do it, while steadfast supporters of his Liberal Party would likewise prefer him not to be its leader.

“He took a gamble, the timing was perfect, and it looks like he’s going to come up aces,” says Prof. Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Tokyo’s Temple University Japan. “But it’s the most lukewarm enthusiasm imaginable for a leader that’s going to romp home to victory.”

What are the issues?

With the liberal Democratic Party effectively neutered, and Koike — a former defense minister under Abe — adopting a manifesto virtually as conservative as the incumbent’s, there is little chance of a major shift in policy after the ballot.

One divergence is on nuclear power, which remains a hot-button issue seven years after the Fukushima power plant meltdown. Abe says restarting Japan’s nuclear reactors will help meet climate change commitments and reduce reliance on expensive fossil fuel imports. Koike wants nuclear power phased out and renewables to comprise a third of total energy supply by 2030.

Abe’s most contentious domestic policy is a proposed hike in consumption (sales) tax – from 8% to 10% — in late 2019. Abe says the funds are needed to prop up social security spending and to service Japan’s debts, though he has attempted to assuage opponents by also promising a $17.8 billion stimulus package for schools, childcare and care for the elderly. Koike opposes the hike.

What does this mean for Japan?

Despite Japan’s annual growth forecast growing from 2.5% to a upbeat 4%, a rise in exports despite a stronger yen, and a buoyant national bourse, economic worries still rank highest among Japanese voters. Abe is trying to play the nuclear power issue as the answer to rising energy prices, but few are sold on his signature “Abenomics” economic policy.

Abe is also portraying himself as tough on security following the two North Korean missiles that flew over Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido in recent weeks. Many Japanese are calling for the military capability to strike North Korean targets in the event of conflict. Some even want Japan to develop its own nuclear weapons. While Abe is unlikely to go that far, he remains determined to alter pacifist elements of the national constitution and deepen reform of the national armed forces.

What does this mean for the U.S.?

Abe hit it off better than anyone with U.S. President Trump during his golf-packed February visit to the U.S., where he presented Trump with a $3,800 Japanese-made gold-plated driver.

The Japanese prime minister has been a staunch supporter of the U.S. security agenda throughout his terms, and a changing administration in Tokyo would inject uncertainty into the bilateral relationship at a time when Washington is trying to maintain pressure on rogue state North Korea.

Trump is due to visit Japan early next month and would prefer to be meeting with his old clubhouse buddy when he does. “Abe has lots of fans inside the beltway,” says Kingston. “All the policy wonks are rooting for an Abe victory.”

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