Outlook on 2016: Hard look at Japan's politics in year of reckoning

Outlook on 2016: Hard look at Japan's politics in year of reckoning
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
PHOTO: The Japan News/ANN

In the past, prime ministers used to hold New Year's parties in the garden of their official residence on Jan. 1.

It was customary back then for prime ministers to express their aspirations for the year to an audience of other Diet members and supporters.

At a New Year's party in 1993, then Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa said, "Whatever happens, the sky won't fall."

On the same day five years later, then Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto emphasised, "I would like to make this new year a good one, just like the [warm, fine] weather we are blessed with today."

Both Miyazawa and Hashimoto, who appeared confident of the future prospects of their administrations, came to face their own ordeals several months later.

Miyazawa lost steam over a "politics and money" scandal involving a senior member of his Liberal Democratic Party and was later forced to dissolve the House of Representatives and hold a general election because of turmoil over political reform.

His party was defeated in the election, falling from power into opposition.

Hashimoto saw his LDP suffer a crushing defeat in the House of Councillors election over his "economic fiasco" of promoting fiscal reconstruction amid the Asian financial crisis. He was later forced to resign.

There is half a year or so before the upper house election this summer. Up for judgment this time will be the political leadership of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has managed to keep his Cabinet approval ratings high and steady over the past 3½ years.

Stock prices are said to be an indicator of the Abenomics economic policy package.

They might be fluctuating now, but the nation's employment situation stands rock-steady. Japan's relationships with China and South Korea, which had been considered pending issues, are also taking a favourable turn.

"A castle takes three years to build, yet it can fall in a single day," Abe said in his New Year's reflection, implying that a blunder could instantly destroy good results no matter how steady and hard-earned they were.

When the first Abe Cabinet was in place in January 2007, its approval rating stood as high as nearly 50 per cent.

But opposition parties consistently questioned scandals involving his Cabinet members, causing the rating to plummet in the summer.

Abe, who saw his party suffer a major defeat in the upper house election, resigned from the premiership later on.

Given that his first Cabinet was short-lived, Abe probably must be fully aware of the danger that the political landscape can drastically change.

The LDP and its coalition partner Komeito could win a major victory in the upper house election if there are no major scandals or big developments like a global economic crisis. Such a victory could give Abe an ideal window to realise the constitutional revision he has long been advocating.

His administration might also be able to get down to the tasks of tackling the northern territories issue as well as the question of Japanese nationals abducted to North Korea - both unable to be resolved by past administrations.

But it won't be easy for the Abe administration to keep a tight grip on itself, mostly because of the lack of a threat posed by the Democratic Party of Japan, the biggest opposition party.

When the DPJ fell from power and went into opposition about three years ago, it set a target of becoming "a party able to play its role as one of the two largest parties."

In a bid to win support from conservative voters, the DPJ once became quite conscious about toeing the line taken by the Kochi-kai, an LDP faction currently chaired by Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida that is considered relatively liberal. But there are not so many voters who regard the present DPJ as conservative.

In "single-seat constituencies" with only one seat to be contested every three years, which are considered to heavily determine the outcome of the upper house election, the DPJ is said to have a stance of not necessarily insisting on fielding its own candidates but jointly supporting independent candidates with other opposition parties, including the Japanese Communist Party.

If the DPJ cooperates with the JCP, which holds different views even over key policies, the ruling parties will only intensify their criticism about the DPJ's attempt to form a "union of convenience" for the election.

Such moves by the DPJ could even give "cause" for Abe to dissolve the lower house and hold elections for both houses of the Diet on the same day.

A good point of contention in the elections could end up being a choice between "the LDP-Komeito coalition government, or one comprised of opposition parties including the JCP." Will the DPJ be ready, indeed, for such a development?

Political developments are hardly predictable. We will keep a sharp eye out to grasp what happens and report them minutely in this new year.

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