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How Abe Shinzo Broke Japanese Politics

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How Abe Shinzo Broke Japanese Politics

With snap elections and sniping at the opposition, Abe eliminated any possible challenge. Without a viable opposition, some pursue extreme measures to bring about change.

How Abe Shinzo Broke Japanese Politics
Credit: Flickr/ Anthony Quintano

Almost a year has passed since Abe Shinzo’s assassination, and the world continues to pay tribute to him for the legacies that he left on the world stage. However, it should be noted that he was also a master campaigner. In every national election since 2012, when he became prime minister for the second time, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has scored victory after victory, gaining a disproportionate number of seats against a scattered opposition. Such domination, reinforced by successive election cycles, has led to pundits using the term Abe One-Strong (安倍一強) or LDP the One-Strong (自民一強) on a regular basis — terminology that accurately depicts the political dynamics at the time.

The LDP’s extraordinary success in recent elections rested on two of Abe’s most effective electoral tactics. One was to hold elections at a time that best maximized his and his party’s political benefits. In Japan, the prime minister has the sole power to call a snap election of the House of Representatives on his or her own terms based on the interpretation of Article 7 Clause 3, which states that one of the Emperor’s duties is to perform the “Dissolution of the House of Representatives” based on the consent and advice from the cabinet. 

After returning to power in 2012, Abe held snap elections in 2014 and 2017, aiming to further disrupt the remaining political momentum of the Democratic Party, which had already experienced a wipeout in 2012. After repeated drubbings, the DP had to change its party name for the sake of political survival.

The snap elections of 2017 were not only a reminder of Abe’s tactful usage of the levers of power at his dispensation but also a demonstration of his boldness. 2017 was a perilous year for Abe. The accusation that he had discounted the sale of state-owned lands and then cut red tape for new veterinarian departments to be built in universities on behalf of his friends engulfed his administration and plummeted his approval rating to an all-time low.

Adding to that was the ascent of the newly elected Tokyo Governor Koike Yuriko, who was considered the largest threat to Abe. The local party that she launched trumped the LDP in the metropolitan election that was held in the summer of 2017, and by using that momentum she was set to launch another party on the national level — the Party of Hope (PoH) — intending to topple the LDP ,which she previously had belonged to. 

With a gathering storm and an emerging alternative, Abe rolled the dice — which ultimately rewarded him with a resounding victory. As he dissolved the House of Representatives, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which was still the largest opposition force, out of desperation, merged itself with Koike’s new party as a means of bandwagoning. However, due to the launch of another party, which consisted of DPJ members rejected by the PoH, and Koike’s gaffes, the field was further divided, allowing the LDP to achieve a super majority along with Komeito, its coalition partner.

Although Abe was saved mainly by luck in 2017, his strategy to strangle the emerging opposition in its cradle generated the smallest number of seats for the largest opposition party in post-war Japanese political history.

The second destructive measure perfected by Abe was to ridicule the opposition again and again. Reckoning how essential the public’s disbelief in the DPJ administration was for his comeback to power, Abe used every occasion to remind the people of the ”nightmare of the Democratic Party administration.” The repetition was ubiquitous; these utterances took place at campaign stumps, political fundraising parties, or during Diet deliberations.

His fear-mongering, which touched a chord with the public, seemed to work. Although Abe’s support was not overwhelming among voters, the largest reason why voters supported his regime was that they viewed it as the lesser evil among the poor choices — reflected by the even-lower approval rating of the opposition parties in contrast to the LDP.

To be fair to the DPJ administration, which lasted for three years, its demise was caused by extraordinary circumstances, notably the great 2011 earthquake and the explosion of a nuclear power plant — the safety standards of which were determined earlier, while the LDP was in power. Nevertheless, Abe pushed a simplistic understanding that allowed him to navigate the public discourse, arguing that his rival’s executive experience was a “nightmare” and he was the only alternative — a narrative that the public ultimately seemed to heed.

How to judge Abe’s impact on the Japanese political landscape is a matter of perspective. On the bright side, the years that were defined by Abe’s dominance and electoral success provided stability to a country that not so long ago was described as a revolving door, where leaders changed every year.

However, the consequence of Abe’s kind of political stability had its downsides, too. Abe’s deliberate sabotage of the opposition through elections and messaging achieved catastrophic success. As was the case under Abe, under the Kishida administration, too, the LDP is supported by most of the public — to varying degrees — because there is no clear alternative that would replace them. Approval ratings for the opposition remain sluggish, with most parties in the single digits. In addition, the feeling that the LDP would win no matter what, since the opposition is too weak and divided, has continued to cause a decline in electoral participation, allowing the LDP to win elections by a relative majority.

A worrying consequences of this political apathy are the recent incidents of political violence in the country. In the span of two years, two assassinations were attempted on two Japanese leaders — with Abe being killed and Kishida escapaing a bomb attack. In both cases, the perception that political and electoral processes were not functioning properly motivated the attackers to deploy extreme measures in the hope that change would be brought about. Ironically, change did occur after the Unification Church scandal broke out following Abe’s assassination by an alleged victim of that sect. 

Japanese politics is perceived by many people as broken and that has begun to generate not just frustration but hostility. Depending on the range and severity of the violence that manifests itself in the future, the aftermath will shape the ultimate assessment of the Abe era. Whether that will be understood as a prelude to more competitive elections or the beginning of an age of increasing political violence is still unclear.