At a time of great domestic and global uncertainty, Japanese voters chose continuity over change in Sunday’s general election. After rolling the dice on snap elections last month, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe snatched a sweeping victory for his ruling coalition, prevailing despite allegations of cronyism against the Prime Minister and a populist scare from a powerful rival. Ultimately, Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner Komeito earned a clear mandate from voters, winning more than a two-thirds majority in the 465 seats of the House of Representatives.
Crucially, that majority now meets the parliamentary threshold for initiating constitutional revision, which remains Abe’s ultimate goal. (The coalition already has the two-thirds majority in the upper house needed to proceed.) Nonetheless, Abe was circumspect about the prospects for constitutional revision in the immediate aftermath of the vote. “The matter should be debated in the Diet,” the Prime Minister told a TV interviewer as the votes were tallied, “and at the same time I expect discussions to deepen among the public.”
Abe wants to revise Article 9, the war-renouncing clause of the U.S.-imposed 1946 constitution, by adding an explicit and legitimating reference to Japan’s defense forces. But that proposal still faces lingering opposition among the cautiously pacifist public. Abe’s administration was sharply criticized for ramrodding new security legislation through the Diet in 2015.
Since then, however, the security environment surrounding Japan has dramatically worsened, with North Korea repeatedly firing missiles over the island nation and detonating its sixth nuclear test in September. Just this past month, Pyongyang launched a missile over Japan one day after it threatened to “sink” the country and turn the United States “into ashes and darkness.” For the first time since the final months of World War II, when U.S. strategic bombings (including the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear attacks) decimated more than sixty major cities, Japanese children are learning air-raid safety drills in school.
This ominous security environment colored the campaign from the start. In announcing early elections, Abe said he wanted to renew the public’s mandate for “powerful diplomacy” on North Korea, including Japan’s support for the U.S. stance that all options are “on the table” in dealing with the threat. Abe and the Japanese public are keenly aware that their nation must rely on U.S. security guarantees to deter the threat from Pyongyang, even though President Trump is widely seen as a loose cannon. The President’s intemperate rhetoric and pejorative threats toward “Rocket Man” certainly make Japan very nervous, but Abe has tried to avoid any public show of discord. On Monday, Japanese officials were quick to report that Trump had called and congratulated Abe on the win, confirming the “unshakable” U.S.-Japan alliance just weeks before Trump is expected in Japan on the first stop of his first visit to Asia.
Abe’s other main priorities were domestic. At the start of the campaign, Abe said he must obtain the public’s support and trust to overcome the national crisis of a declining birth rate. He thus asked for a fresh mandate to spend a larger proportion of the extra revenue from a planned consumption tax hike in October 2019 on social welfare initiatives for children and the childbearing-age population. The proposal drew criticism from fiscal conservatives, as the hike was initially meant to pay down the government debt, which is more than twice Japan’s annual GDP.
Citing North Korea and the stimulus issue as justification, Abe was able to call snap elections at an opportune moment. Aiming to recover from allegations of cronyism that dealt a severe blow to his popularity, Abe triggered elections before his rival, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, could get fully organized on a national level. And the move paid off: Totally disarrayed not only by Abe’s bold political gamble but also by their own miscalculations, the opposition parties collapsed. Only one hastily formed party, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, bucked the trend, gaining unexpectedly at the expense of the others.
Koike’s newly formed Party of Hope underperformed expectations, winning only 50 seats. This was a particularly disappointing result for Koike, who broke from LDP to run for Tokyo governor last year and led a highly successful populist revolt in Tokyo’s Metropolitan Assembly elections in June. The Party of Hope took on the conservative wing of the moribund Democratic Party, while the Constitutional Democratic Party took on the liberal wing. The latter become a venting opportunity for some voters’ frustrations over Abe’s alleged scandals and his overwhelming political dominance.
After five years in power and Sunday’s big win, Abe will likely secure the LDP leadership in a party vote next September to become Japan’s longest-serving Prime Minister. The current record holder is Katsura Taro, who served three non-consecutive terms between 1901 and 1913. Abe is expected to oversee the abdication of Emperor Akihito in the spring of 2019, and then the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games under the new Emperor’s rein.
Facing grave challenges, Japan’s voters chose stability and known knowns, avoiding the populist paths trodden by their counterparts in the United States and Western Europe over the past year and a half. They also demonstrated the messy yet transparent ways of democracy to their Chinese neighbors—who happen to be choosing their own leaders behind the thick red curtains and shadowy back rooms of the Communist Party Congress this week. If there is any political kabuki going on these days in East Asia, it’s going on in Beijing, not Tokyo.