the absence of any serious opposition party spells more trouble than good for abe’s reform plans.
abe’s balancing act to keep his ultra-conservative clientele happy as well as to deliver on his promises of economic reform turns out to be complicated by the absence of any significant opposition party. two years in office and abe’s political agenda still remains a merry grab bag for right, left, conservative and progressive. a lot of this has to do with the people he is surrounding himself with – just look at the recently reshuffled cabinet and its only subtly redrawn balance between political hardliners and economic reformers. but also the absence of a serious opposition doesn't make finding focus any easier – there simply is no force that would compel the ldp to less vaguely outlined standpoints or a cabinet with a clearer edge. instead, abe can continue an angela merkel-style ambiguity and slowly but surely loses his credibility as the reincarnation of more enduring koizumi.
even more so, the absence of a real opposition party threatens to upend the delicate balance of abe’s recent cabinet reshuffle that seemed to slightly favour the economic reform camp. in 2009 the ldp has been burnt badly by underestimating the momentum for change and the attractiveness of a clear, credible opposition party. it will not make that same mistake again. but the current opposition's messy state makes it all the more difficult to find a clear response - so abe is blindly lashing out in every direction, running the danger of chasing spectres all around in order not to lose crucial support and votes for the few, yet hotly contested policies he has clearly committed himself to, eventually putting his economic reform agenda at risk.
the phantom menace - abe's diffuse sense of a threat environment
the perceived threats are many and diffuse. there is much white space to form a strong opposition to abe's left and right given his ambiguity, but in reality little is made of it; a myriad of puny political agglomerations (the word 'party' would often be an overstatement) - with platforms too far-off the median voter and too uncompromising to merge with others to form any credible alternative yet - are vying to fill that space. the latest addition on september 17 to the hotchpotch of platforms already ranging from from ishin no kai or the tomorrow party to your party and the people's new party's was ishihara's brainchild, the next generation party.
for those who didn't understand why a right wing guy would leave a rightwing grouping to form another right wing grouping, he was nice enough to clarify something nobody had noticed - ishin no kai was just not right wing enough. how that was possible with an ishihara-hiranuma duo in the leadership is something for his biographer to explain. one can only be curious on how they are planning to trump their past, obviously restrained, self. for now, among its eight entertaining main objectives it lists aspiring to be "advanced conservative" (?), to "[a]rdently engage in developing the spirit of 'self-respect and independence of mind' to foster patriotism", and to come to a "strong and intelligent nation management system through financial system implementation by accrual basis double accounting".
but regardless of the degree of success the opposition parties might have in trying to jinx japan's electorate with the promise of double aacounting, prime minister abe won't just idly stand by. instead, he will try to occupy as much of the white space as possible himself.
abe's response to a non-existent opposition: all-around activism
some early signs of what this means in practice do not bode well for those hoping for greater commitment to finally implementing structural reforms: starting his sweeping blow tactics already in december 2013, abe visited the yasukuni shrine, despite all the foreseeable negative consequences this would bring with china and korea. as tamzin booth pointed out in the economist, he did this because it was an easy and at the time relatively low-cost move to boost his appeal to the right - and hence to sap off votes for any future opposition party forming to his right. but more recently, the chaos surrounding a possible rewrite of the kono statement is also aimed at hitting the same empty opposition punching bag, trying to brush up abe's right-wing credentials for fears of a diffuse challenge from even further right. an end to this cluster munition approach to tackling potential challengers is not in sight, given that ishihara just launched yet another potential threat.
upsetting the balance
but the more attention abe pays to how to fend off any potential threat to the right, the less backup he can give to the economic reform camp in his cabinet - and abe's degree of support is the only thing that can tilt the delicate balance of power in his government between political hardliners and economic reformers. the purpose of his reshuffling the cabinet purportedly was to clearly signal his irrevocable commitment to economic reform. with his diffuse activism on all fronts, he is putting this objective into question.
ishihara's infamous essay collection published in 1989 was called 'the japan that can say no'. one can only hope japan listened and, until they are offering a better alternative to abe's premiership, will say no to him and his fellows. if not, abe might devote lots of time chasing right wing spectres instead of fixing the economy - just to run no risk of repeating 2009. what abe does not yet seem to have fully realised is that the best way to solidify his power is to tackle japan's economic problems. that would take care of the opposition problem all by itself.
image credit: creative commons (lordcolus)