John Nilsson-Wright
Head, Asia Programme

Poll predictions suggest that the governing Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), headed by Prime Minister Yoshiko Noda will suffer a resounding defeat in the Lower House elections on December 16 at the hands of the main Opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) led by conservative former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. 

The scale of the likely defeat - with some indicators suggesting that the DPJ will see its current tally of 230 out of 480 seats in the House of Representatives slashed to as few as 60 - reflects widespread public disaffection with the party. They are blamed for falling short on a wide-range of critical policy issues, including dealing with the Fukushima nuclear and earthquake disasters of 2011, and for failing to promote economic recovery and managing critical foreign relations with the country’s allies and its immediate neighbours in Northeast Asia. 

Although the LDP is projected to secure a commanding 300 seat majority, bolstered by another 30 seats from its junior coalition partner, New Komeito, such an outcome would not represent an unambiguous endorsement of the party. For much of the post-war period the LDP had a largely unchecked monopoly of political influence in Japan. Now, the LDP offers at best predictability, but not in a manner that generates much enthusiasm on the part of an electorate increasingly disaffected with conventional politics. The DPJ’s problems are a combination of poor management and a failure to deliver on its overly ambitious 2009 manifesto pledges, especially in the field of social welfare policy. Furthermore, the political space has expanded with the emergence of a diverse field of competing, new parties that are increasingly siphoning support away from the political mainstream, most significantly from the DPJ.     

Twelve parties are contesting the election and of these, the most notable is Nippon Ishin no Kai (the Japan Restoration Party) a right-of-center new party. The party is led by the controversial, nationalist former Governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, supported by the equally outspoken and polemical Mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto. Their appeal is based on a policy platform of neo-liberal economic reforms, support for regional devolution, constitutional reform and a hawkish foreign policy that includes a more assertive role for Japan’s armed forces. Although geographically concentrated in the Kansai area of Japan, the party’s national standing is high, polling around the 10-11% mark, just one point behind the DPJ, which is trailing the LDP on 30%, according to recent polls. Other parties include Nippon Mirai (Japan Tomorrow Party), which has garnered support from its anti-nuclear stance and its commitment to generous social welfare provision. 

Tough decisions needed on the economy

The dominant issues for the election include how to reignite a stagnant and lackluster economy, how best to effect the transition away from dependence on nuclear power, and the future of foreign trade and Japan’s possible participation in the TransPacific Partnership (TPP). Notwithstanding the critical importance of these issues, the election has been marked by reluctance by the main contending parties to be clear about their policy prescriptions. This is in contrast to past campaigns when the parties were eager to offer detailed manifesto commitments. This reflects both the complexity of the policy issues under discussion, and also, in some cases, a desire to avoid antagonizing electorally powerful interest groups, most notably farmers and consumers who, for example, remain opposed to Japan’s participation in the TPP. 

The DPJ, LDP, and JRP all favour ambitious economic growth targets of between 2 and 3%, supported in part by the revenue forthcoming from a planned doubling of Japan’s consumption tax from 5 - 10% over the next three years. For its part the LDP is pushing for support for industry, new ambitious reconstruction policies and a focus on monetary easing as a means of stimulating the economy and boosting exports through a devaluation of the yen. By contrast, the DPJ continues its traditional stance of favouring greater social and economic equality, while nurturing new growth industries. 

In foreign policy, the main parties are united in supporting a stronger response to China, South Korea and Russia in asserting Japan’s territorial claims, whether over the Senkakus, Takeshima, or the Northern territories. Public opinion is antagonized by signs that Japan is increasingly challenged and wrong-footed by its neighbours on a number of security issues, including North Korea's 12 December satellite launch. Emerging from this frustration is a greater public willingness to support a more assertive role for Japan’s armed forces and possibly a willingness to embrace once taboo issues such as constitutional reform.

Indecision to continue

The absence of clearly defined and costed policies may explain the large number of undecided voters – as many as 40% of the electorate, according to a recent survey. This is why it’s important that the LDP remain politically cautious in pushing its policy agenda if, as seems likely, it wins the election on December 16th. A future Prime Minister Abe will be looking ahead to next summer’s Upper House election and the need to secure a majority in this chamber where, until recently, the absence of any clear governing majority for either the DPJ or LDP, has stymied major policy reform. 

A strong performance for the LDP on Sunday will allow Japan's conservatives to consolidate their power, but they will need to work closely with the new broad spectrum of third parties – many of which represent opportunistic alignments of politicians who often lack clear policy preferences. Until these policy options are more clearly defined, Japan’s pattern of unstable, reactive and often ad hoc government decision-making is likely to continue.