Mike Mochizuki on Japan’s Snap Election

The photo, from July of 2016, shows Yuriko Koike campaigning for Tokyo’s special gubernatorial election.

Mike M. Mochizuki holds the Japan-U.S. Relations Chair in Memory of Gaston Sigur at the Elliott School of International Affairs in George Washington University.  Professor Mochizuki was associate dean for academic programs at the Elliott School from 2010 to 2014 and director of the Sigur Center for Asian Studies from 2001 to 2005.  He co-directs the “Rising Powers Initiative” and the “Memory and Reconciliation in the Asia-Pacific” research and policy project of the Sigur Center. Previously he was a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. He was also Co-Director of the Center for Asia-Pacific Policy at RAND and has taught at the University of Southern California and Yale University.  He received his Ph.D. in political science from Harvard University.  His books include Energy Security in Asia and Eurasia (co-editor and co-author, 2017); Nuclear Debates in Asia: The Role of Geopolitics and Domestic Processes (co-editor and author, 2016); The Okinawa Question: Futenma, the US-Japan Alliance, and Regional Security (co-editor and author, 2013); China’s Military and the U.S.-Japan Alliance in 2030: A Strategic Net Assessment (co-author, 2013); Japan in International Politics: The Foreign Policies of an Adaptive State (co-editor and author, 2007), and Crisis on the Korean Peninsula: How to Deal with a Nuclear North Korea (co-author, 2003). He has published articles in such journals as The American Interest, Asia Pacific Review, Foreign Affairs, International Security, Japan Quarterly, Journal of Strategic Studies, Nonproliferation Review, Survival, and Washington Quarterly.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has called for a snap election to be held on October 22, 2017, a year earlier than scheduled. What advantages does this give to Abe, his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and their coalition party Komeito in terms of campaigning strategy?

This election is a snap election not because it is called earlier than scheduled, but because it is being called earlier than required by the Japanese constitution. Once the House of Representatives is elected, it has to call an election within four years according to the constitution. Japanese Prime Ministers have the constitutional authority to dissolve the Diet to call an election so they tend to do this when they think they can maximize their vote. Consequently, almost every election for the House of Representatives has technically been a snap election. Abe probably should have called the election in early 2017 because his popularity started to plummet during the summer. But when he saw that his ratings began to recover in September, he decided that it would be better to call an election now than to wait until later. The concern about putting off the general election was three-fold. First, Abe had promised to raise the consumption tax. Raising the tax is controversial and can lead to a decline in support so Abe wanted an election well before he would have to implement the tax hike. Second, Abe decided that it would be better to call an election while the opposition camp was in disarray. Lastly, the fact that North Korea was launching missiles and detonating a very powerful nuclear device would give Abe an electoral edge.

According to press reports, Abe was told that his party could win 280 seats in the Lower House election, which would be a slight drop from the 290 seats that the LDP had before dissolution. Given the decrease in Lower House seats from 475 to 465, winning 280 seats would allow the LDP to maintain its large majority. This positive forecast probably motivated Abe to call an election now.

Calling the election at this time was also good for the LDP’s coalition partner: the Komeito. The Komeito is a political party with a tightly-organized religious group called the Soka Gakkai as its main base. Whenever an election is called, as long as the Komeito has enough notice, the party is able to mobilize the vote.

What is the outlook for Japan’s main opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ)?

Since Prime Minister Abe has called the election and Governor Yuriko Koike of Tokyo decided to form her own party called the Party of Hope, the Democratic Party of Japan has disintegrated. Many of those who supported Mr. Seiji Maehara in the September 1st DPJ leadership race followed Maehara in merging with Koike’s Party of Hope. But Governor Koike established the condition that DPJ members that would be joining forces with the Party of Hope would have to meet certain policy criteria, especially regarding security policies and constitutional revision. Some of the most progressive, left-leaning DPJ members would not meet that condition, nor would they want to join with Governor Koike. Therefore, the progressive, left-leaning wing of the Democratic Party has created a new party, the Rikken Minshuto or Constitutional Democratic Party, led by Yukio Edano. Moreover, quite a few other former DPJ Diet members have decided to run in the election as independents.

Many have linked the decision to call for early elections to the recent rise in Abe’s approval ratings, which they attribute to Abe’s hardline stance on North Korea. How stable is this support, given that he and his party recently suffered from corruption scandals and the resignation of the Defense Minister?

After calling the election, the creation of Governor Koike’s party and a reorganization of the opposition camp have made Prime Minister Abe and the LDP somewhat vulnerable. Abe and the LDP had underestimated what Governor Koike could do. They had underestimated Ms. Koike when she first decided to run for the governorship of Tokyo in the July 2016 special gubernatorial election, and the LDP did not support her candidacy. That decision led to a split in the conservative camp, and she soundly defeated the LDP-endorsed candidate. Then in the July 2017 Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election, her political group Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First Party) won 49 seats while the LDP won 23 seats and the DPJ five seats. Her coalition which includes the Komeito now controls 79 out of the 127 seats in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly. Abe and the LDP should have anticipated that Governor Koike would make a move into national politics. This was a miscalculation on Prime Minister Abe’s part, and what looked like a certain big victory in the upcoming general election now looks a little more uncertain.

In addition, the criticism that Abe was calling an election to evade answering questions about the scandal surrounding the Moritomo School and Kake School began to gain traction in the media and even in the public. The first thing that the opposition camp had been planning to do after returning to session in the Diet in September was having more discussions about those scandals.

Criticisms regarding the North Korea issue have also put Abe and the LDP on the defensive. Although some Japanese people believe they should support Abe because of his firm stance on the North Korean issue, others insist that Abe has been reckless by introducing an element of uncertainty in Japanese politics when the country is facing such a severe North Korea crisis. The critics argue that Abe’s call for an election is political opportunism rather than promotion of Japan’s national interests.

The Party of Hope, a conservative party newly established by a former LDP member, is threatening the LDP’s chance at winning a simple majority. What implications could the Party of Hope and its growing popularity have on the Diet’s vote for the next prime minister?

Although the Party of Hope has made Abe somewhat vulnerable, still in terms of public opinion polls, only about 3 to 10 percent of the Japanese people support the Party of Hope, which is much less than the support for LDP. The Party of Hope has not caught up with the LDP nationally. But Governor Koike and the Party of Hope probably have a strong base in Tokyo, which has the most single-member districts in Japan. The Party of Hope could defeat a number of the LDP candidates in these urban districts in Tokyo. However, even then, the LDP and the Komeito would have enough votes in the National Diet to elect the Prime Minister. Unless the Party of Hope could develop a national strategy to mobilize voters outside of Tokyo or form an effective electoral coalition with the Restoration Party, it is not clear how many seats the Party of Hope will win.

Another problem is that Governor Koike has repeatedly stated that she will remain as governor and will not stand for election in the House of Representatives. Mr. Maehara said that Ms. Koike, as the head of the opposition party, ought to stand for election in the House of Representatives and run for prime minister. This will not be politically feasible since many people in Tokyo voted for Ms. Koike because she pledged to concentrate on the revitalization of Tokyo. If she steps down as governor, then there could be irritation and discontent toward Ms. Koike. But if Ms. Koike does not step down and remains as governor, it is unclear which Party of Hope candidate will run for prime minister. The leadership in the Diet will be unclear, and that adds another element of uncertainty. Even if the Party of Hope does quite well in the general election, the LDP and Komeito could still win a majority and hang on to the reins of government. But if the number of LDP seats declines significantly, even if it does not fall below a majority but declines to about 250, then there could be some discontent within the LDP. Some people may say that Prime Minister Abe needs to take responsibility for this electoral setback and may challenge Abe from staying on as Prime Minister.

What are the policy priorities in the Party of Hope’s platform, and in what ways do they differ from LDP’s agenda? Does the Party of Hope mainly distinguish itself from the LDP as a non-establishment party, rather than with its policy platform?

On issues such as security policy legislation and the tough stance toward North Korea, the Party of Hope’s platform is very close to that of the LDP, if not identical. But the area in which they so far distinguish themselves is that the Party of Hope emphasizes the need for greater devolution of power to the localities. Secondly, Ms. Koike has pushed the notion of greater diversity and more opportunities for women, and she will use this platform to mobilize support from women. Ms. Koike has also called for greater transparency in government policymaking, and she has tried to implement it herself as governor of Tokyo. The platform serves as a criticism of the Abe administration and its less-than-forthcoming responses to various scandals. Regarding nuclear power, the Party of Hope might push for the goal of ending the use of nuclear power in Japan. This is a policy that the DPJ and some of the leftist parties have been promoting. The LDP has been more pro-nuclear energy although it has also promised to reduce the amount of nuclear energy. It is quite possible that the Party of Hope could strongly oppose the continuation of nuclear energy and call for the promotion of renewable energy sources. In fact, former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has advised Governor Koike that she should use the policy of moving away from nuclear energy as one of the platforms to distinguish her party from the LDP and gain more seats in the election.

What implications could the snap election have on Abe’s ambition to amend the Japanese constitution to allow a greater military role for the Self Defense Forces (SDF)?

First of all, although Abe probably personally wants to amend the constitution so that the SDF can perform a greater military role and fully participate in collective defense activities, he has pulled back from that agenda due to public opposition and resistance from his coalition partner, the Komeito. The most recent proposals he has put forward for revising the constitution simply call for changing Article 9 so that the SDF are unequivocally seen as constitutional. The proposed amendment would only establish the constitutional legitimacy of the status quo without giving SDF a greater role. If the LDP and Komeito fail to win a two-thirds majority, then the issue of constitutional revision becomes very interesting because the Party of Hope and the Restoration Party are much more enthusiastic about constitutional revision than the Komeito. Ms. Koike has also stated publicly that aspects other than Article 9 of the Constitution should also be discussed, such as the public’s right to know.

How could the snap election and the next few weeks of campaigning affect Abe and his cabinet’s ability to respond to North Korean provocations?

Japan, like South Korea, is caught in a fundamental strategic dilemma. Most of the Japanese as well as South Koreans understand the necessity of the international community cooperating to pressure North Korea and stop its nuclear development. But the prospects of such a policy succeeding have become dimmer and dimmer. If the United States were to use military force to deal with North Korea’s nuclear program, then there is a high probability that this could lead to a military conflict on the Korean Peninsula. Even though Abe has stayed in line with President Trump and has assumed a hardline stance, he is also concerned that the U.S. could miscalculate and trigger a military conflict on the peninsula. Because most Japanese would find that to be a horrible outcome, whether or not Abe wins or loses, the fundamental calculus does not change in Japan.

If the LDP fails to gain a majority, what changes could be made to Japan’s North Korea policy?

If the LDP-Komeito coalition were to lose this majority or if the Komeito decides to shift its coalition partner, which is highly unlikely, then Japan’s North Korea policy would depend on which party or parties form a ruling coalition. If the Party of Hope and the Restoration Party become part of a LDP-led ruling coalition, then there will not be a fundamental change in the policy. Only if the Constitutional Democratic Party, the progressive wing of the former DPJ, and the Social Democratic Party join the government, then the policy would shift toward pursuing greater dialogue with North Korea. Under such a government, there might be greater convergence between Japan and South Korea for more dialogue as well as for pressure on North Korea.

Seoyoon Choi CMC '19Student Journalist

Featured Image by Dick Thomas Johnson from Tokyo, Japan (Campaign Car at Harajuku) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

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