prime minister shinzo abe's call for a snap election was a sinister, but politically smart move – and unavoidable
in an - even for the asahi - unusually scathing editorial from november 19, japan’s major centre-left daily strongly criticised shinzo abe’s move of calling a snap election as a “short-circuited” ploy to deflect from the unwelcome debates on the state secrets bill and constitutional revision, saying it revealed abe’s “pathetic misunderstanding of democracy”.
the asahi is not wrong in accusing the prime minister of disingenuousness for seeking electoral approval for abenomics. after all, he was handed a decisive victory in 2012 precisely for his programme of reflation. but the newspaper is wrong in seeing the reason for calling the election merely in creating a smokescreen for the debate on constitutional revision - as are others who see this premature election only as an unnecessary distraction, a sinister way to solidify his hold on power while the opposition is still in a shambles and his popularity ratings still high.
this last point certainly comes close to abe’s intentions, but the state of the opposition and the chance to solidify his power alone do not explain the timing of the snap election. after all, abe was facing an equally scattered opposition also three months, or six, or even a year ago, and with higher popularity ratings. in fact, abe’s call for a snap election on november 18 was a wily move that tackles all of the problems the prime minister and his abenomics reform programme are grappling with right now – but even more so it was a necessity: contrary to the wide-spread criticism of the election being an unnecessary distraction, abe actually had no choice but to pull the plug if he wanted to stop the slight, but steady and foreseeable erosion of his standing as japan’s leader to whom there is no alternative.
prime minister abe’s teflon-like popularity has suffered some serious blows in recent months – the upcoming election makes all of them forgotten and instead pushes the focus back to the issues where his armour is the strongest: abenomics
shinzo abe’s popularity ratings proved persistently high – higher indeed than that of any of his policies, whilst his disapproval rating was lower than that of most of his policies. even while more negative news for abenomics came trickling in (sluggish wage growth trailing inflation, lack of progress on substantial reforms), he seemed to be hovering above that daily data stream. but in october his so far teflon-like coating showed the first cracks.
the first blow came with dismal gdp figures released for the second quarter of 2014. the sales tax hike, it became clear then, dealt a much heavier blow to the Japanese economy than most economists had predicted. for a prime minister pledging his fate on a platform of economic revival, a contracting economy is potentially lethal news.
shortly after this, two (newly appointed) cabinet ministers resigned, letting his government appear fragile for the first time, stirring up unpleasant memories. many newspapers, from the nikkei to the economist, drew parallels to his first stint as prime minister, making these memories not only unpleasant, but potentially damaging for his credibility as leader. to make matters worse, the two ministers were women, and meti minister yuko obuchi a rising star with ambitions for the highest offices. taken together, this damaged his credibility and reputation for leadership and cast fundamental doubts on his ability to deliver on his key promise to better the lot of women in japan – regardless of whether these resignations actually were women’s issues at all. on top of all that, several weeklies continued to dig into the political funds of other ministers (the reason why the two female ministers had to resign in the first place). soon, defence minister akinori eto and maff minister koya nishikawa had to face allegations of misused funds, while the new meti minister, yoichi miyazawa, came under pressure for news concerning his aides’ sm-bar visits.
this threatened to become a steady streak of damaging news with no end in sight (the dpj already had announced further ‘revelations’, probably also in the $0,75-range as before with justice minister midori matsushima’s distribution of paper fans). thus, these few months prior to calling a snap election threatened to drag prime minister abe into a pr-nightmare, steadily eroding his credibility and the belief in his commitment to reform – by far the most important assets he has.
if prime minister abe was to avoid becoming bogged down in the pussyfooting around these scandals, he had no choice but to come up with something that would draw attention away from his ailing cabinet and re-focus the debate on his home turf of the promise of economic revitalisation: the answer was calling an election, narrowly styled as a referendum on his economic policy.
and abe’s plan worked out brilliantly
indeed, all the kerfuffle quickly made way for election analyses. the discussion on financial misconduct has ebbed down, the wobbles of the cabinet all but forgotten, the focus on the small but mostly negative details of abenomics made way for focusing on the overall still very ambiguous (and hence hopeful) grand narrative of abenomics. it's all back to reflation, abe’s key policy that is still commanding the most positive associations – and above all else, hope. now, abe alone sets the tone for these elections: all opposition platforms amount to mere tweaks and responses to abenomics and fail to offer any comprehensive programme able to compete. one look at the latest dpj campaign clip is enough: it merely recounts all numbers usually quoted in debates on abenomics and then asks voters to think how they could be improved (shouldn't the dpj do the thinking?) - not much of an alternative, then.
and since the effects of his abenomics are still so ambiguous, voters can read as much good or bad into it as they like. but most voters still want to believe the hope and abe’s commitment to reform and this is what they will be voting on. prime minister abe’s gamble has thus worked out brilliantly. and so, looking at the latest projections, with all past trouble forgotten, the ruling coalition is on track for a major victory and even has a realistic chance of winning a 2/3 majority. but after sunday’s election, there will be no more excuse for shinzo abe not to double his efforts to take on vested interests. double the mandate, double the fervour.
image courtesy: sven palys