Japan is going to the polls again this Sunday, for the third time in five years. On September 25, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced the dissolution of the House of Representatives a year earlier than the natural end of its mandate, thus triggering the start of the election campaign. In explaining his decision, Abe talked about the need for the country to equip itself with a government that has the strong majority needed to deal with the various challenges that will face the country in the future.
Abenomics and the opposition
The Prime Minister speaks with hindsight. On the political front, Japan is still dealing with the chronic economic stagnation which has paralyzed the country for about twenty years. Abenomics, the strategy named after the prime minister that was launched in 2012, has attempted to stimulate growth with action on three fronts: an aggressive monetary policy, fiscal flexibility and public investments, but has failed to achieve the expected results. Internationally, the constant threat from Pyongyang and the growing naval assertiveness of Beijing in the South China Sea are seriously endangering national security. The uncertainty generated by the military escalation in North-East Asia is compounded by President Trump’s increasing willingness to review the obligations of the US toward its ally in security matters.
However justified, the reasons that led Abe to submit to the will of the people include some that are purely political. After registering a negative peak in popularity in the summer, when his approval rating fell below 30%, following tensions on the Korean peninsula and the launch of two long-range missiles that flew over the island of Hokkaido, Abe is now back at 50%. The elections are therefore a way to capitalize on the renewed popularity of his leadership, as well as a strategy to quash the ambitions of opposition parties, which are divided by in-fighting and currently lack the numbers to challenge the coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party - Abe’s party - and its ally, Komeito. Abe is therefore benefiting from the absence of a strong and cohesive opposition, although in recent weeks the Party of Hope, founded by Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, has attracted considerable interest among the electorate. According to a survey by the Japanese newspaper Mainichi, Abe could win 300 seats (out of 465) on Sunday. If this is true, it would be the best result the LDP has achieved for the last 31 years.
Constitutional reform and the energy issue
The matters of greatest interest in the domestic political debate remain constitutional reform and the country’s future energy supply. With the recent dissolution of the Democratic Party, which was historically cautious about constitutional reform, the political landscape has changed dramatically. The Abe-led coalition would like to amend article 9, a leftover from US impositions at the end of World War II, which prevents the country from adopting a military system that is not purely defensive. Abe’s reform would transform the existing Self-Defense Forces into a regular army but has been strongly opposed nationally and internationally, with South Korea and China threatening reprisals in the event of a Japanese rearmament. A solid majority could however give the Prime Minister the strength to pursue the reform.
As regards the energy issue, Abe is one the main advocates of a return to nuclear energy. The existing energy plan, which came into force in 2014, provides for nuclear energy to be used only for the baseload, i.e. standard energy requirements, leaving renewable energy and fossil fuels with the burden of meeting peek energy demands. However, more than six years since the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant, the work of restoring the reactors is not proceeding at the expected pace: according to a 2016 estimate, nuclear power was only covering 2% of the country’s electricity requirement. Currently, in order to comply with the energy plan, while also meeting the country’s growing demand for energy, Japan would have to start increasing nuclear energy production by 20-22% until 2030. In the meantime, coal is the most economical and reliable alternative on which the country can rely in the short term.
During the short election campaign, the biggest opposition parties declared themselves totally opposed to a return to nuclear energy, hoping to attract support from citizens still deeply troubled by the 2011 disaster, although as yet they have been unable to put forward a truly viable alternative. The energy supply problem, with a constantly growing demand for energy, and the need to pull the country out of economic stagnation, will be the real challenges for the winning coalition.