Rising Graph of Abe’s Popularity

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By calling for an early election, the 63-year-old Japanese Prime Minister aims to benefit from current traction as well as divert attention from recent scandals and cement his leadership

By Mridu Kumari

North Korea has given Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe an opportunity to raise his popularity graph which otherwise was heading southward from April to July following a series of political scandals hit his government. Thanks to his tough rhetoric at the UN General Assembly on North Korea, Abe’s approval rating went 50 per cent high in September from 36 percent in July, as per nationwide surveys conducted by The Yomiuri Shimbun, the Japanese daily. Rise in popularity is a prime reason why Abe dissolved lower house of the parliament and called for a snap election which, according to media reports, would be held on October 22.

By calling for an early election, the 63-year-old Japanese Prime Minister aims to benefit from current traction as well as divert attention from recent scandals and cement his leadership before a new political party formed by Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike makes inroads. The prime minister also announced a 2tn yen ($17.8bn) stimulus package on education and social spending. At a press conference on September 25, he said the fresh stimulus was needed for programs to prepare Japan for the future. He also said he would continue on his path of fiscal reform and would use the revenue from the recently introduced sales tax to balance the budget and reduce debt. Over the last month, Pyongyang has fired two ballistic missiles over the world’s third largest economy, besides conducting a hydrogen bomb test in the Pacific Ocean.

Japan is the only country in the world which has experienced atomic bombings and Abe’s hard-line stance on the matter has resonated among citizens fearful of repeat of a nuclear warfare. While majority of the population still remains uncomfortable with Abe’s nationalist tendencies, yet his detractors are hesitant to criticize him on defense and security issues, given the current Korean Peninsula crisis. This has given him an opportunity to push through a controversial shift in Japan’s post-war pacifist defense policy, calling for formal recognition of the military in the constitution. According to Nikkei’s recently undertaken survey, foreign affairs and national security were ranked as the second-most important issue for the election campaign, coming in below social security policies. Yet Abe faces a new challenge from a former Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) cabinet member and current Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, who earlier on September 25 announced she was forming a new national political party. Nonetheless, if current opinion polls turn reality for the Prime Minister during the forthcoming election, he will remain Prime Minister but his current coalition with the smaller Komeito party might fail to secure the two-thirds majority needed for his plan to revise the constitution. If he wins another term, it would put Abe on track to becoming the country’s longest-serving political leader in Japan’s post-war history.

Interestingly in July Abe’s LDP had lost to Koike’s party, Tomin First in elections in Tokyo. Abe appeared at risk of losing the chance to become Japan’s longest serving Prime Minister. But Abe’s robust rhetoric after North Korean missiles flew over Japan has helped distract voters from a series of scandal that dogged him thoroughly in the mid of this year. At the same time, the economy is showing stronger than expected growth, bolstering Abe’s bid to continue leading the country at a time when the main opposition is so weak. Survey polls show that close to two-thirds of the public disapproves of Abe’s accelerated timetable, given that he is not legally required to call an election until December 2018. But over the weeks a Kyodo News poll found that voters who planned to cast their ballot for Abe’s Liberal Democrats outnumbered those who would vote for the Democratic Party by more than three to one. Yet with 42 percent of those surveyed still undecided, Koike’s wild card of a party is likely to capture some of these voters.

Koike herself will not be running for a lower house seat, but she will use her popularity to campaign for her party’s candidates. While announcing the launch of new party, Koike said she wanted to increase female participation in society and work toward an energy policy that eliminated nuclear power and reduced carbon emissions to zero. She said she wanted to debate the revision of the Constitution, but she questioned the wisdom of focusing exclusively on the pacifist clause that is at the center of Abe’s ambitions. Koike questioned Abe’s timing in calling for an election. “I see a big question mark on calling an election in the midst of the North Korean situation being so critical,” she said during a news conference recently.

“I wonder if it’s appropriate in terms of crisis management for the country,” she added. Analysts feel that Abe has been presenting himself as a force for stability at a time when majority of Japanese have been awoken by SMSs notifying them of missile launches. He is also able to leverage the fact that he is one of the few world leaders to maintain a close relationship with US President Trump and manage the often unpredictable American President. Yet on the electoral front, it is not clear whether Koike’s party would hurt Abe’s political fortunes or whether it could become a coalition partner for the Liberal Democrats. So far, four members of the Democratic Party and one from the Liberal Democrats have announced their intention to join the new party, along with a handful of independents. Those who have said they will join the new party are in favor of revising the pacifist Constitution. If Abe aligns with the new party, he could claim that there is more and broader support for his proposals. And this is what he desperately wants.