By now, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s political longevity and staying power have themselves become his political brand and legitimacy. Boosted by an upturn in his popularity ratings partly due to the risky behavior of the North Korean regime in testing missiles and hydrogen/atomic devices, PM Abe may be aiming for an election in October 2017, more than a year early.
For the record, Pyongyang fired two missiles that flew over Hokkaido before crashing into the Pacific Ocean. The Japanese public is clearly concerned about the two missile launches and the recent 160-250 kiloton hydrogen bomb test. The maintenance of peace and security are clearly on the minds of Japanese society at large. Such concerns are very real and legitimate. They may become a major priority with the electorate.
Generally speaking, during crises like Pyongyang’s missile and hydrogen device tests, electorates in democratic countries tend to vote for stronger and conservative parties with well-tested and time-honored election platforms that reassure voters of strong management to cope with national crises.
The LDP-led government has reacted calmly to the atomic/hydrogen bomb and intermediate/intercontinental ballistic missiles (IRBM and ICBM) tests so far, preferring to issue J-alerts and to warn Hokkaido citizens to remain inside homes or shelters and keep away from missile debris. In terms of policy, Tokyo has drawn much closer to Washington and Seoul, increasing their inter-operability, and has participated in joint anti-missile tracking coordination exercises in areas like Hawaii.
Japanese government statements indicate that Pyongyang has possession of sarin gas chemical warheads that may be targeted at Japan and other US allies. The Japanese government believes that Pyongyang already has the capabilities to arm their missiles with chemical warheads. Some suspect Pyongyang has stockpiles of weaponized chemicals, especially since North Korea is not a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention.
Sarin gas may bring back negative memories of the subway attack in Tokyo in 1995. Followers of the millenarian cult and doomsday sect leader Shoko Asahara used sarin gas to attack commuters on a Tokyo subway train. The mastermind of the attack, Asahara has been sentenced to hang for his crime. Another recent memory is Syria where chemical weapons like sarin may have also been deployed.
In terms of longer-term plans, the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) response has been to bolster anti-ballistic missile defence systems. Japan already has the Patriot Pac-3, the sea-based Aegis system, and its own indigenous countermeasures. It is interested in procuring what is likely to be the land-based Aegis air defence system. This may strengthen the security of its citizens and offer better interception of missiles should it be necessary.
The opposition party’s platform appears to be more exposed to changes in political and ideological orientations compared to the consistently conservative LDP and its alliance with the consistently moderate pacifist platform of the Komeito Party.
Another factor that may push PM Abe to call for an election in October is that the Japanese political opposition is in some form of reorganization following the resignation of the Democratic Party (DP) leader, Renho. The DP is the main opposition party to the ruling LDP and was formerly known as the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) before merging with the Japan Innovation Party to form the current DP.
The DP’s alliance with the Japan Communist Party (JCP) has proved to be contentious both in terms of a united front strategy and voters’ resonance. At the height of its popularity, the liberal base of the DP (and the former DPJ) reached out to moderate conservative voters and politicians but after PM Abe came into power in 2013 and the DP became the opposition, the DP has swung left and linked up with the JCP.
Former Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara has assumed the position of the new leader of the opposition led currently by the DP. However, Maehara’s internal party leadership’s victory to lead DP meant that his rival Yukio Edano’s factional ideas of continuing their partnership with the JCP may be scrapped.
Therefore, the opposition party’s platform appears to be more exposed to changes in political and ideological orientations compared to the consistently conservative LDP and its alliance with the consistently moderate pacifist platform of the Komeito Party. Komeito has a major support group in the form of the large Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai which reportedly has mobilized its regional heads to prepare for a possible election.
Opposition to PM Abe is likely weak and disunited at the moment. Meanwhile, some political chatter is starting to aim the DP’s attention at the direction of the newer Tomin First no Kai Party (TFKP, translated as Tokyo Residents First Party), which is fast rising to challenge the more established parties (both governing and opposing). The idea is to strategically work with TFKP because it is becoming a credible force to affect both the LDP and DP.
However, the TFKP, as headed by popular Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, has yet to develop a national platform, although her Prime-Ministership ambitions are well-known to the popular media. Koike first successfully ran for the Tokyo Governorship as an independent candidate without the backing of the LDP or other established party platforms on July 31, 2016. In July 2017, TFKP scored big when they won the prefectural election: 49 out of 50 candidates from her party secured a place in 127-legislators-strong Tokyo assembly, while PM Abe’s LDP lost above 50 percent of its Tokyo assembly seats, decreasing from its count of 57 to a record low of 23 representatives.
Koike’s underdog image has gathered a regional base of loyalists such as independent parliamentarian Masaru Wakasa, who in turn communicates with former Environment Minister Goshi Hosono. The former minister left the DP in August 2017 to look at the potential of joining/allying with the Wakasa/Koike tag team. In mid-2017, Koike gave her support to a Chiyoda-ku mayoral candidate who overwhelmingly defeated the LDP candidate. Despite this, Koike does not yet have the national clout or time to put together a national party at short notice.
After a series of setbacks caused by challenges from Koike and her supporters, PM Abe is keen to regain momentum and the trust of the Japanese electorate. This election is likely to function as a reboot with the recent recovery of his poll ratings. Abe is in a strong position to capture the election.