Abe vul­ner­a­ble af­ter dis­mal poll show­ing

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

As­tun­ning de­feat for Ja­panese Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe’s rul­ing party at the hands of a novice po­lit­i­cal group in the cap­i­tal has re­vealed the fragility of his sup­port and shown that vot­ers can desert him - if there is a cred­i­ble al­ter­na­tive. Abe surged back to power in 2012, pledg­ing to re­vive the stale econ­omy and bol­ster de­fense. He has led his rul­ing bloc to three more land­slide vic­to­ries in na­tional polls since then.

But those vic­to­ries were less ro­bust than met the eye, since record or near­record low voter turnout al­lowed Abe’s Lib­eral Demo­cratic Party (LDP) to rack up seats with sup­port from a quar­ter or less of el­i­gi­ble vot­ers. On Sun­day, the party got a chill­ing glimpse of just how vul­ner­a­ble it could be if a vi­able op­po­si­tion force emerges to at­tract un­happy vot­ers. That re­minder could en­cour­age ri­vals in Abe’s own party to chal­lenge him in a lead­er­ship race next year if his slump­ing poll rat­ings fail to re­cover.

Pop­u­lar Gov­er­nor Yuriko Koike’s novice Tokyo Ci­ti­zens First party and its al­lies - in­clud­ing the LDP’s na­tional-level coali­tion part­ner won a land­slide vic­tory, tak­ing 79 seats in Sun­day’s elec­tion for the 127-mem­ber Tokyo Metropoli­tan assem­bly. The LDP got 23 seats, its worst ever re­sult in the cap­i­tal and less than half its pre-vote pres­ence.

The vote was a ref­er­en­dum on the first year in of­fice of Koike, a me­dia-savvy for­mer LDP law­maker and de­fense min­is­ter who de­fied the party’s old boy net­work to run on a re­formist plat­form and be­come the first fe­male gov­er­nor of the metropo­lis. But it was also a sting­ing re­buke to Abe’s ad­min­is­tra­tion, bat­tered by sus­pi­cions of scan­dal over favouritism for a friend’s busi­ness and ver­bal gaffes by his cab­i­net min­is­ters. Worse than the scan­dals and mis­steps, how­ever, was the per­cep­tion among many vot­ers that Abe and his pow­er­ful Chief Cab­i­net Sec­re­tary Yoshi­hide Suga have grown haughty and dis­mis­sive of crit­i­cism given the rul­ing bloc’s su­per­ma­jori­ties in both houses of par­lia­ment, a weak and frag­mented op­po­si­tion and no se­ri­ous chal­lengers in his party. “Ar­ro­gance, com­pla­cency, fragility” summed up a head­line in the Nikkei busi­ness daily on Tues­day, in­gre­di­ents politi­cians and pun­dits agreed were key causes of the LDP de­feat. “It doesn’t have any­thing to do with pol­icy,” said Gerry Cur­tis, pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at New York’s Columbia Uni­ver­sity. “It’s all about the ar­ro­gance of Abe and Suga and the sense that they are rid­ing roughshod ... to break un­stated rules of the game.”

Abe heads to Ham­burg on Wed­nes­day for a Group of 20 sum­mit where lead­ers are likely to dis­cuss North Korea’s nu­clear and mis­sile pro­grams - a topic that could play to Abe’s strengths at home, where he is known for his tough line to­wards Py­ongyang. North Korea said yes­ter­day it had suc­cess­fully test-launched an in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­sile that could strike any­where in the world. In an in­ter­view with the Mainichi news­pa­per pub­lished on Tues­day, Abe said he would “re­flect deeply” on the Tokyo poll re­sults.

But he also said there would be no change to his plan to have the LDP present a pro­posal to re­vise the post-war, paci­fist con­sti­tu­tion to an ex­tra ses­sion of par­lia­ment in the au­tumn to meet his tar­get of amend­ing the US-drafted char­ter by 2020. Try­ing to stick to that timetable for what would be a deeply di­vi­sive amend­ment, how­ever, could be risky, since even many who sup­port the change don’t see it as an ur­gent pri­or­ity. Abe’s con­ser­va­tive agenda of restor­ing tra­di­tional val­ues and loos­en­ing con­straints on the mil­i­tary cen­ters on re­vis­ing the con­sti­tu­tion. But the pub­lic are deeply split on the pro­posal, which would an­tag­o­nize China and South Korea.

The huge win for Koike’s novice party has fanned spec­u­la­tion that her group will go na­tional in a gen­eral elec­tion that must be held by late 2018, per­haps join­ing with dis­af­fected law­mak­ers from the strug­gling op­po­si­tion Demo­cratic Party. The Democrats, who have had lit­tle suc­cess in re­pair­ing their im­age af­ter a rocky three-year reign ended in 2012, also fared badly in the Tokyo poll, tak­ing only five seats.

A new party could set up Koike for a run at the na­tion’s top job, but her al­lies have said she’s un­likely to quit as gov­er­nor to re­turn to par­lia­ment be­fore the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. In the mean­time, with much of Abe’s pre­vi­ous clout over his party based on his record of lead­ing it to elec­tion wins, the dis­mal Tokyo show­ing could well en­cour­age ri­vals to chal­lenge his bid for a third term as LDP leader from Sept 2018.

Vic­tory in that party poll would put Abe on track to be­come Ja­pan’s long­est-serv­ing leader, eclips­ing early 20th Cen­tury premier Taro Kat­sura who logged nearly eight years in power. Among those floated as pos­si­ble chal­lengers are for­mer De­fence Min­is­ter Shigeru Ishida, who has been fo­cus­ing on ways to re­vi­tal­ize Ja­pan’s de­pop­u­lated ru­ral re­gions, and For­eign Min­is­ter Fu­mio Kishida, con­sid­ered more dovish than Abe. “As politi­cians re­al­ize that Abe is vul­ner­a­ble, that will in­spire them to do some­thing,” Cur­tis said. “He’ll prob­a­bly sur­vive, but even so, I don’t think he will get much done in terms of pol­icy.” — Reuters

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