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June 17, 2020

JAPAN: Will Abe be able to pull off another comeback?

BY Tobias Harris

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( 5 mins)
  • The ordinary session of the Diet closed on Wednesday, 17 June, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s approval ratings at some of their lowest levels since he returned to power in 2012.
  • Abe will try to position himself to call a snap election that could revive his fortunes, as he did in 2017, but circumstances will complicate his efforts.

The end of the Diet session finds Abe as weak as he has ever been. Voters strongly disapprove of how his government has handled the pandemic, particularly its economic fallout. His power over his own ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its coalition partner Komeito are at low ebb. The LDP is increasingly focused on the race to succeed Abe when his term ends in September 2021.

The prime minister is unlikely to get a respite after the Diet session ends. Beyond the ongoing challenges of containing Covid-19 and restarting Japan’s economy, Abe has continued to face criticism for the controversy regarding former Tokyo public prosecutor Hiromu Kurokawa and is battling a new firestorm this week after the defense ministry abruptly suspended plans to deploy the advanced Aegis Ashore missile defense system due to opposition from host communities in Akita and Yamaguchi prefectures and cost overruns. This decision has not only prompted criticism for defense hawks like post-Abe contender Shigeru Ishiba but could also be a source of tension with the US, since the Aegis Ashore purchase was the largest piece of a package of military purchases intended to address Trump administration’s concerns about the trade balance.

In this context, Tokyo has been awash with rumors and speculation about Abe’s future. The critical question is whether the prime minister will be able to call a snap election that would effectively reset his government, ensuring his survival until the end of his term and strengthening his influence over the succession contest, if not necessarily securing him a fourth three-year term as LDP leader.

Teflon Abe?

While Abe’s approval ratings are underwater, this is not the first time he has faced widespread disapproval and criticism from within the ruling coalition that appeared to spell the end of his premiership. To cling to power, he has overcome mass protests, influence-peddling allegations that eroded public trust in his leadership, and the resignation of cabinet ministers.

Abe continues to face a weak opposition, perhaps the single most important factor sustaining his premiership. Despite his falling approval ratings, support for opposition parties remains moribund. Previously, weak support for the opposition enabled Abe to call snap elections twice to bolster his authority without risking his majority. As the Covid-19 outbreak recedes, his ability to play the snap election card will grow. An autumn snap election, assumed to be likely at the start of 2020, is once again a possibility.

However, for a snap election to be a credible threat, Abe will have to stabilize his public support. The delivery of emergency relief, the end of the Diet session, and a low level of new Covid-19 cases could all help. He is also expected to reshuffle his cabinet and the LDP’s leadership in August, which could help contain some of the intra-party criticism and jockeying for position in the succession race. He would also need a bold policy proposal to justify a snap election. There is considerable speculation that he would use either a sharp consumption tax cut or temporary suspension of the tax as the trigger for dissolving the Diet, although either proposal could exacerbate tensions within the ruling coalition instead of uniting the ruling parties behind Abe. If Abe were to carry out this scheme and preserve a large majority for the ruling coalition, it could make a party rule change that enabled him to seek a fourth term back on the table, particularly if Donald Trump were reelected as US president.

This time is different?

But Abe may face headwinds now that could make a comeback difficult, if not impossible. The Covid-19 recession and the widespread perception that the government has moved too slowly to contain the economic fallout may make it difficult to reverse growing disapproval. The forthcoming reshuffle could go awry, bringing new scandals and resignations. Foreign policy may be less of an asset than before, as his rapprochement with China faces mounting criticism from within the LDP, the security situation on the Korean Peninsula worsens even as Japan and South Korea have resumed their trade dispute, and fallout from the Aegis Ashore decision and looming host-nation-support negotiations could augur a contentious period with the US. Meanwhile, the danger of another wave of infections remains. Finally, with the prime minister in his eighth year and the news having been dominated by scandals and policy failures for several years, the public may be more prone to Abe fatigue than before. All of these factors could make it more difficult for Abe to rebuild his public support and feel confident enough to gamble on a snap election, not least because he would encounter resistance from within the ruling parties.

If he were to gamble on a snap election in late 2019 or early 2020, it is far from certain that he could avoid significant losses for a third consecutive general election, whether due to higher independent turnout or defections by Komeito supporters. Even if the ruling coalition wins a majority again, Abe would lose personally if the coalition lost a significant number of seats. Given these risks, a snap election is not guaranteed.

Meanwhile, although Abe’s approval ratings have stabilized for the moment, if they deteriorate further, he could face a loss of confidence within the LDP, which would not only rule out a snap election but would force Abe to fight for his survival. If he were to resign suddenly, a short succession campaign could favor Ishiba, the public’s first choice and Abe’s most vocal critic, rather than a more amenable successor like LDP policy chief Fumio Kishida.

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