Two Decembers ago, Shinzo Abe became Japan’s prime minister, ending several years of rule by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). Abe’s second stint in office has now made him the longest-serving Japanese prime minister since Junichiro Koizumi in the early 2000s. This upcoming December, Japan will head to the polls again to deliver a verdict on Abe’s economic policies, which have lately turned out to present a mixed picture. After news emerged that Japan was officially in a recession, Abe decided to dissolve the lower house of Japan’s Diet, setting the country on the path to early elections that will serve as a public referendum on Abe’s leadership. The election will be held on December 14.
When Abe returned to the office of prime minister in December 2012, he avoided repeating the mistakes of his first term, which ended in 2007 after a year in office. Abe’s first term was marked by poor personal health, a heavy emphasis on nationalism, and little in the way of economic reform. Abe 2.0 showed that he had learned from his earlier mistakes to an extent. His second term kicked off with a strong focus on economic reform. With a three-pronged strategy of economic reform dubbed “Abenomics,” Abe set out to fix Japan’s fiscal, monetary, and structural problems. While reforms appeared promising in their early months, causing much-needed inflation in the Yen and increasing Japanese consumer spending, euphoria turned to lethargy in mid-to-late 2014. A consumer sales tax increase from 5 to 8 percent in early 2014 stymied consumer spending, and pulled the rug out from under Abe’s feet. With an additional scheduled sales tax increase on the horizon in 2017 (originally scheduled for next year), Abe’s decision to call a snap election will allow voters to bear the burden of deciding whether Japan’s current trajectory is sustainable.
Apart from economic factors, the Japanese public hasn’t entirely been in sync with several of the Abe government’s initiatives in other realms of public policy. For example, while Abe favors restarting many of Japan’s suspended nuclear reactors, public opinion in Japan continues to reel at that prospect in the wake of 2011’s disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Similarly, the Abe government’s decision to reinterpret Japan’s constitutional restriction on participating in collective self-defense drew public criticism. A recent poll published by the Asahi Shimbun, a left-leaning Japanese publication, showed Abe’s approval rating to stand at 39 percent — the lowest during his current prime ministerial tenure.
Despite the dip in Japan’s economic fortunes and public criticism in other areas, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) will likely be safe going into these elections. The same Asahi Shimbun poll shows just 13 percent of respondents expressing support for the DPJ. In some ways, the suddenness and surprise of the news that Japan had entered a recession and Abe’s subsequent decision to immediately dissolve the lower house of the Diet left the opposition off-guard and disorganized. The DPJ hasn’t fully recovered from the public backlash that ensued following that government’s handling of Japan’s manifold problems in the wake of the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Abe has said that he will resign if his party’s coalition with New Komeito Party fails to win a majority. Given that this is a highly unlikely outcome of the coming elections, expect to see more of Shinzo Abe well into 2015.