Japanese electorate set to stick with devil it knows

Tokyo Letter: LDP’s Shinzo Abe may become Japan’s longest-serving leader since WWII

A few months ago, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe was on the political ropes, fighting accusations of cronyism and corruption. Now, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which he leads, is on course with coalition partner Komeito for a supermajority in a snap election on Sunday. Abe may well become Japan's longest-serving leader since the second World War.

Some of this is thanks to the largest opposition, the centrist Democratic Party (DP), which effectively disbanded last month. More than 100 members have since jumped ship into a messy partnership with the Party of Hope, founded by Yuriko Koike, Tokyo's governor. After a soaring start, Hope's star appears to have faded. Koike herself will reportedly not even be in the country on election night.

It is not the first time the country's main opposition has meekly folded. In the mid-1990s, the Japan Socialist Party entered a brief, disastrous coalition government with the LDP. The result is that Abe's party has now been in power in a series of shifting coalitions for all but a handful of years since 1955. That's a level of domination unknown in the liberal democracies of America and Europe.

Economics helps explain why, says Takashi Shina, an opposition lawmaker. Japan is enjoying its third-longest period of growth since the war. Unemployment is just 3 per cent, a 20-year low. Anybody who wants work can get it. "We're comfortable," concludes Shina. "There are many weaknesses underneath the surface but few politicians with the courage to really change things."


Debt and growth

Japan’s two biggest problems are linked: its debt burden of more than $10 trillion – the largest in the developed world – and its ageing, declining population. Without growth, the debt will continue to expand. Yet nobody in government has figured out how to make the $4.8-trillion economy go faster with a workforce that is set to shrink by 40 per cent in the coming decades.

Stronger opposition parties might propose alternatives – more immigration, for example – but they're in disarray. A poll by the Yomiuri Shimbun, the country's most popular newspaper, shows support cratering for Koike's gimmicky platform, which includes ridding Japan of hay fever and crowded rush-hour trains. A left-leaning rump that broke away from the DP has little money or time to organise an effective challenge.

The LDP is helped by a long-term structural bias in Japan's first-past-the-post voting system, says Kenneth McElwain, an Irish-Japanese political scientist at the University of Tokyo. Rural areas are grossly over-represented. Despite efforts to narrow the disparity in votes since the supreme court ruled that previous elections were unconstitutional, the LDP benefits, he says. "To win an election in Japan you have to win rural districts and they tend to be conservative."

The party has done well too, he says, from voter apathy (turnout in the December 2014 general election was 52 per cent, the lowest since the war) and from quirks in the electoral system, among the most restrictive in the developed world. The effect, he says, is to favour the party in power, which has better access to television and newspapers. “There is a tendency in every country for voters to go with the devil they know – in Japan that’s especially strong.”

Stimulus packages

But the LDP has maintained its hold on Japan – or at least the roughly one-quarter of eligible voters who consistently choose it – by being more pragmatic and less ideological than its counterparts elsewhere. Though routinely described as conservative, its policies resemble the heyday of European social democracy. A string of huge stimulus packages under Abe has dulled the impact of Japan’s declining competitiveness.

Tunnels, bridges and splashy public works fill up rural districts like Ehime, an LDP stronghold. Shipbuilding and textiles businesses, run by bosses intensely loyal to the LDP since 1955, put the area on the map, says Tsuyoshi Fukuda, a local politician with the Democratic Party. Those businesses are in decline, along with the population but many people still look to the LDP, he says, "partly out of fear for the future".

Abe has rallied supporters, too, around a tough stance on North Korea – ahead of a planned visit to Japan next month by US president Donald Trump. LDP election posters promise to "continue protecting Japan" following a string of missile tests by Pyongyang. It is not clear to many voters how the LDP will do this, says the DP's Fukuda. But the domestic scandals that partly forced Abe to call the election in the first place have been all but forgotten, he says. "In that sense, his decision to go back to the polls has been a success."