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Abe exploits ballot to extend tenure

Updated: 2014-11-25 07:44
By Cai Hong (China Daily)

Two years ago the Liberal Democratic Party, in opposition, won a landslide victory in the general election, putting Shinzo Abe in office for a second time as prime minister. But his mandate was less than meets the eye. Abe himself saw the results as a rejection of the then ruling Democratic Party of Japan rather than support for the LDP.

And in the past two years, trust in Abe's governance has faded in Japan. Abenomics, as his economic policies are known, was supposed to get the country growing again. His report card, however, offers little to cheer people up. Japan is back in recession, and people are tightening their purse strings. A national election will cost as much as 60 billion yen ($ 510 million) in taxpayers' money, and amid a run of dismal economic news, ordinary people are growing more vocal in their complaints that Abenomics is doing little for them.

This would have been fertile ground for an effective opposition. But although the shine is starting to come off Abe's popularity, Japan's political landscape has not changed in the past two years. Voters seem to have little choice but to keep Abe in power or stay home on Dec 14.

The Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition party, has not pulled itself together since its fall from power, and it has failed to present its own prescriptions for ending deflation. Other opposition parties, or the "third force", simply have no track record of governing. This group was once taken as a rising political force to challenge Japan's two big ruling and opposition parties, yet these parties have not convinced enough voters that they are viable alternatives. Worse, in cases of tarnishing their credentials, some just stooped to ally themselves with the powerful LDP by supporting its controversial agenda on issues such as the state secret law.

Knowing that support for the ruling coalition of his LDP and the New Komeito Party is still more than the opposition camp can musterslightly more than 25 percent of people are likely to vote for the LDP and only 9.4 percent for the DJPAbe has used the economic situation as a ruse to call an election.

Even so, most people aren't buying it. A Kyodo News poll last week found that 63 percent of Japanese people did not support his decision to dissolve the parliament's all-important lower house, which was scheduled to expire in December 2016.

And the upcoming election will not be plain sailing for the LDP. It will take Abe into dangerous waters. Many of his policies will be challenged and are likely to sap support from the LDP. The state secret law and the Abe Cabinet's decision to expand Japan's military role overseas among others still divide public opinion.

Abe does not need an election to push forward his Abenomics or put off the sales tax hike. So what is it for? Abe has seen the popular approval ratings of his Cabinet on a downward trend in media polls in recent monthsthough they're still fairly high for an administration that has already been in office for nearly two years. But he faces an LDP presidential election in the fall next year. A campaign as early as next month will likely strengthen the ruling camp and Abe himself, and it seems reasonable to suppose that by winning a victory in a national poll he will be able to prolong his tenure as LDP president. If so, Abe might be prime minister till 2018. He would have enough time to do what he wants to do, such as writing a new Constitution for Japan.

Abe needs a win in the national election to give a fillip to his party. In an apparent backlash against Abe's security and nuclear power policies, the LDP-sponsored candidates lost the governor polls in Shiga and Okinawa prefectures. And the LDP is worrying about more defeats in Japan's quadrennial unified local elections due in April. With a low turnout expected on Dec 14 as people are weary of the febrile state of politics in Japan, Abe is looking to get a shot in the arm that will carry him through to his party's presidential election.

The author is China Daily's Tokyo bureau chief.



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