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7 reasons Japan's snap polls is not an 'election about nothing'

October 21, 2017 3:33 PM
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TOKYO - Ten days after North Korea fired its second missile in less than a month over Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that Japan will hold a snap election on Sunday (Oct 22), more than a year before one is due.

Just when the media was scrambling to cover the unexpected news, announced on Sept 25, Tokyo Governor and former Cabinet minister Yuriko Koike stole the thunder by saying that she would be setting up a new political party to challenge Mr Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

But what appeared initially to be a credible opposition challenge soon fizzled out and voter fatigue sets in. For Tokyo residents at least, this would be their fourth election since July last year (2016).

Campaigning, since it began on Oct 10, has so far been a predictable affair. Even major Japanese media have struggled to keep up interest at times. But the high stakes attached to Sunday's electoral outcome belies what has been characterised by some as a "Seinfeld election", meaning an election about nothing.

Here are seven reasons why Sunday's vote in the world's third largest economy matters.

Up for grabs on Sunday are 465 seats in the Lower House, the more powerful chamber in Japan's bicameral parliamentary system.

Any party or coalition that holds a two-third "super majority" in the lower chamber of Parliament will be able to push forward Constitutional amendments.

Mr Abe has set a simple majority target of 233 seats for the coalition.

Media surveys expect the coalition to win anywhere between 290 and 320 seats.

The Lower House is the more powerful of Japan's two legislative chambers as it has the final say over treaties and the passing of the budget. Any Bill that is passed by the Lower House but voted down by the Upper House will still become law if two-thirds of Lower House lawmakers are in favour.

The labour market is at its tightest in over 40 years, and business sentiment is at a decade-high according to a central bank survey this month.

The economy is also expected to grow for the seventh straight quarter in the three months ending September, which will be the longest winning streak since 2001.

All this, and the LDP's expected victory, is good news for investors. As their mood surged, so did the Nikkei 225 index, which on Friday (Oct 20) rose to its highest close since 1996 at 21,457.64.

Even more significantly, the index has posted 14 consecutive trading days of gains - tying an all-time record set in 1961 when Japan's economy was rapidly expanding ahead of the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games.

After the US pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) multilateral free trade agreement, which Singapore is a part of, Japan and the LDP have taken the lead among the remaining 11 nations to see the pact to fruition.

The TPP is seen as the "gold standard" of trade agreements, and will boost trade and investment links among the countries involved. For Singapore, it opens up links to the fast-growing Latin America, while Singapore firms can also bid for government contracts in other TPP nations.

A big win for LDP on Sunday will secure the 63-year-old leader's position and keep rivals such as Mr Fumio Kishida, 60, and Ms Seiko Noda, 56, at bay as the party votes for its new president in September next year.

Eisaku Sato is Japan's longest-­serving prime minister. He ruled for seven years and eight months from 1964.

Mr Abe, now the third longest-serving PM, has served for six years and a month in two stints as prime minister and would become the longest serving in June 2019.

Even though support ratings for Mr Abe has recovered from the low of below 30 per cent when his administration was hit by a string of cronyism scandals earlier this year, he is not out of the woods. Media surveys show that his disapproval ratings are marginally higher than approval ratings.

If Mr Abe does win, the grandson of postwar Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi will preside over the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games which will allow him to use the occasion to celebrate the revival of Japan after a long period of stagnation.

Last week, President Xi Jinping opened the all-important 19th Communist Party Congress with repeated promises to make China recover its place as a global power.

"China stands tall and firm in the east," Mr Xi said on Oct 18 in a speech marked by repeated mentions of Fuxing, or national rejuvenation, and the Chinese Dream.

The leaders of the world's second and third largest economies have yet to hold a bilateral summit.

Japan has grown more hawkish since Mr Abe took power in late 2012, as he pushes for stronger security legislation within the limits of the war-renouncing Constitution.

The LDP in 2014 reinterpreted the Constitution to grant the Self-Defence Force (SDF) the powers to engage in collective self-defence and go to the aid of an ally under siege.

Mr Abe also mooted the "Proactive Contribution to Peace" framework at Singapore's Shangri-La defence dialogue in 2014 to build a global order and security environment more desirable for Japan.

Under the framework, Japan has more proactively been assisting other nations in Asia and Africa in capacity-building efforts, and has also provided vessels to Vietnam and the Philippines, which have contesting claims in the South China Sea with China.

The premier has railed against Pyongyang on the campaign trail, vowing to keep a tough stance and backing the US line that “all options” are on the table.

In a speech on Saturday night at Tokyo’s Akihabara shopping district, Abe pledged to apply so much pressure on North Korea that the regime would change its ways and ask for negotiations.

“What is needed is strong diplomacy,” said Abe, vowing to work with both US President Donald Trump and Russian leader Vladimir Putin to achieve his goal.

An LDP win will mean a re-balance of power in North-east Asia as Japan, as well as South Korea, seek more defence spending to counter the growing missile threat from Pyongyang.

The US-Japan alliance has grown in strength under Mr Abe's stewardship since he took charge in December 2012, culminating in reciprocal visits with former US President Barack Obama to Hiroshima and Pearl Harbour last year.

Mr Abe is now arguably the world leader most chummy with incumbent commander-in-chief Donald Trump, and both men have been in lockstep over issues like North Korea.

Other opposition leaders have expressed their unease over Mr Trump's rhetoric.

Japanese reports say the two leaders are going to play golf when the US leader visits Japan as part of his Asia tour early next month.

The hustings started out as a two-horse race between the LDP and the newly-formed Kibo no To (Party of Hope), which is led by Mr Abe's ally-turned-foe, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike.

But it soon became apparent to voters that Kibo no To is practically an ideological carbon copy of the LDP. What also left voters scratching their heads is its vague campaign platform that reeks of populism and is lacking in details. It was dubbed "12 zeroes" to, among other things, rid Japan of hay fever and Tokyo of its rush hour insanity.

Also turning the tide against Ms Koike's favour is how she had turned her back on her initial promise to take in candidates from the splintered opposition Democratic Party (DP). But she later said she will "eliminate" left-leaning DP lawmakers who are unable to stand by Kibo no To's platform of constitutional revision. Those who came on board were also made to ink an ideological oath.

This led the DP's left-leaning faction to launch a left-leaning reformist party of their own, known as the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP).

The CDP has been making waves, surging ahead of Kibo no To in several media surveys.

The CDP has also become Japan's most popular political party on Twitter, with 185,025 followers. This is more than the LDP's 130,000 followers, while Kibo no To has 12,900 followers.

Politics is a family business in Japan, where nearly 40 per cent of the LDP's lawmakers are said to be descendants of former politicians.

Former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, 53, who is known for helming press conferences in blue overalls in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima crisis, has also captured media attention as the leader of Japan's newest political party. His Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) is a splinter party of former opposition Democratic Party.

Mr Edano has won a back-handed compliment from the most unlikely of supporters - former Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara. Mr Ishihara, an ultra-nationalist, praised him for "remaining true to what he believes in".

"He looks to me like a real man," Mr Ishihara said, unlike the "many candidates who ran away and became turncoats".


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