Australia & Japan in the Region
Volume 7, No 2, February 2019
In November this year, Shinzo Abe will become the longest-serving prime minister in Japanese history after being re-elected as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in September 2018. With several notable achievements under his belt and an appetite for more, it may seem odd that speculation is rife about the possibility of a mid-year double dissolution election. Ironically, it is blowback against his apparent successes that may force his hand.
Burdened by the demographic double whammy of a negative birth rate and a rapidly ageing society, Abe’s success in raising the consumption tax in measured stages is an important symbolic step towards addressing a declining tax base. The second phase of the consumption tax increase from 8 to 10 per cent, already deferred twice owing to voter and industry concerns over stubborn deflation, is scheduled to occur in October 2019. Having touted the success of Abenomics in his January 2019 policy speech, Abe’s credibility will be dented if he tries to defer this increase again. But the domestic landscape this year may put Abe between a rock and a hard place.
In April 2019, Japan will undertake nation-wide local government elections. This will serve as a barometer for the policy successes that Abe trumpeted in his January policy address. One new policy looms larger than others: the immigration bill that will come into effect in April. Majority public opinion in Japan opposes the arrival of some 345,000 foreign workers over the next five years, even though Japan confronts a dramatic labour shortfall five times larger than the number of planned arrivals. This electoral dissonance points to policy failure rather than triumph: successive Japanese governments have utterly failed to prepare the Japanese electorate for substantial immigration. Abe is now reaping what his predecessors have sown.
A poor result in April may even stir up discontent among Abe’s own governing party
There is also tangible resentment in the electorate concerning the hasty manner in which Abe forced the contentious bill through parliament in late 2018. This sentiment reminds many of the suite of security bills that were similarly rammed through parliament in 2015, tainting policy achievement with an unwelcome authoritarian hue in the eyes of some voters. Local branches of the LDP will have their work cut out for them in April as they battle the electorate’s inclination to punish the ruling party when given the opportunity.
A mere three months later in July the electorate will have a second chance to send a message to Abe’s administration, this time in a triennial election for half of the upper house. This one promises to hurt and is the main reason why Abe may resort to a double dissolution election. Much depends on how the LDP fares in the April poll. The rank and file will need to see reward for their efforts in April to re-enter the fray in July with vigour and purpose. A poor result in April may even stir up discontent among Abe’s own governing party, forcing Abe to curb his enthusiasm for more contentious policy change such as amending the pacifist clause of the Constitution.
Abe’s coalition government currently enjoys a supermajority in both houses of parliament, which enables the government to pass most bills (including those related to amending the Constitution). A loss of that majority would thwart Abe’s policy ambitions, elaborated in his January speech. It could also weaken Abe’s own position within the LDP. In the 2018 LDP presidential poll, only 55 per cent of rank and file members supported Abe to remain as LDP president and prime minister. And in his governing party cohort, former defence minister Shigeru Ishiba had the temerity to stand against Abe. Neither result allows Abe to be complacent as he and his fellow LDP politicians face political reckoning in 2019.
If the April poll goes well for the LDP, Abe could be tempted to go for a double dissolution if external events provide him with an opportunity. In 2017 Abe went to the people a year early for lower house elections to capitalise on two contextual opportunities: opposition disarray and an existential threat to Japan in the form of several North Korean ballistic missile firings. Abe romped home in the election.
South Korea is already providing a platform for Abe to take a stand against what he can characterise as entrenched ‘anti-Japaneseness’
There is every chance that North Korea could oblige Abe once again. And South Korea is already providing a platform for Abe to take a stand against what he can characterise as entrenched ‘anti-Japaneseness’. Recent rulings by South Korea’s Supreme Court concerning wartime forced labourers and the collapse of the comfort women agreement between the two nations could help position Abe well in the eyes of voters. Meanwhile Japan’s opposition remains divided and lacks credibility.
By going early in both houses at the same time — for the whole lower house and half of the upper house — Abe can hedge against the unknown. Should the next consumption tax increase cruel consumer sentiment, if Abe is unable to break the spell of deflation or if the opposition gets its act together, Abe’s LDP might lose its treasured supermajority in a future poll. Right now, Abe remains the only credible leader in Japan’s political firmament. Going for the double this year might be Abe’s best bet.
For the time being, Abe is focussed on shaping his political legacy. He has promised to make history by concluding an unconditional peace treaty with Russia and vowed to eradicate the deflationary mindset plaguing Japanese growth prospects. He is forging ahead in the security sphere, embracing a new multi-domain defence force structure in the latest National Defence Program Guidelines. He continues to position Japan as a global rule-maker in the under-governed domains of cyber and space, and as a champion of multilateral, liberal internationalism. But as early as April Abe’s horizon will have to shrink to his own backyard, where mundane events may yet force him to temper his policy ambitions.
About the author
Rikki Kersten is Interim Pro Vice Chancellor in the College of Arts, Business, Law and Social Sciences, Murdoch University, Australia.