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Abe offers stability — and in Japan, that's sufficient

By ANNA FIFIELD | The Washington Post | Published: October 19, 2017

TOKYO — Spare a thought for Japanese voters as they go to the polls in a snap parliamentary election Sunday. The economy is ticking along respectably, the stock market is at a 20-year high, the country enjoys full employment, Japanese companies are making good profits and there are no divisive problems involving race and almost no issues surrounding immigration.

It is, as Daniel Sneider of Stanford University puts it, a "Seinfeld election." An election about nothing.

But this election offers one important thing for voters at home and governments abroad: stability. Shinzo Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which has been in power for five years, will almost certainly secure control of the House of Representatives for another four-year term.

That is noteworthy in a country that went through six prime ministers in six years — until Abe returned to power at the end of 2012 — and in a world where other advanced nations are dealing with the effects of electoral surprises.

"Britain is in a negative spiral after making a major mistake with Brexit, and obviously there's the sad story of the U.S.," said Michael Fullilove, executive director of the Lowy Institute in Sydney. Australia, for its part, is now on its fourth prime minister in five years.

"There has been so much dysfunction in politics and churn in leadership, and there has been a tendency among Western countries to look inward rather than taking an outward-looking, more muscular view," Fullilove said. "Japan under Abe is an exception to both those trends."

Abe, who is 63, called the snap election 14 months before it was due, ostensibly to seek a new mandate to be tough on North Korea and channel a planned consumption-tax increase into social spending rather than retiring debt.

But most analysts say he is being opportunistic, trying to exploit a sudden rebound in the polls - Kim Jong Un's missile launches over Japan helped boost the hawkish Abe's numbers - and a vacuum in the opposition after months of lingering scandal.

If he retains a two-thirds majority in the powerful lower house, the nationalistic Abe will likely press ahead with plans to revise the postwar pacifist constitution and strengthen Japan's military.

After a surprise challenge from Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike quickly fizzled, Abe's ruling coalition is poised to win more than 300 of the 465 seats in the lower house, according to forecasts from the Jiji Press news agency. It must take 310 seats to retain the supermajority needed to amend the constitution.

But the anticipated support for the government belies the decidedly tepid feelings about the prime minister himself. A poll by the Asahi Shimbun published Wednesday night found that 51 percent of respondents do not want Abe to remain as prime minister.

"Japanese voters are rewarding Abe for providing continuity and stability, even if they don't like him," said Sneider, an East Asia specialist currently based in Tokyo. "They might not greet him enthusiastically, and they might worry about his nationalism, but they're not interested in trading that for uncertainty."

This is partly because the memories of political upheaval remain so fresh in Japan.

When Junichiro Koizumi retired in 2006 after five years as prime minister, as required by LDP rules, Abe succeeded him. But he lasted only one year, quitting suddenly after a huge defeat in an upper house election and two scandals in his Cabinet.

Then, within the next five years came two conservative prime ministers and three from the Democratic Party of Japan, during a rare but difficult period in government that coincided with the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Repeated Cabinet reshuffles meant some ministers were changed even more frequently.

Abe got a second chance when he was returned to the premiership at the end of 2012. The LDP changed its rules earlier this year to allow him to serve a third consecutive three-year term. If he stays until 2021, he will become Japan's longest-serving prime minister.

But Alison Evans, a Japan specialist at IHS Markit, the consulting firm, says Japan's recent stability is more a function of the party than the person. Except for two short periods, the LDP has been in government since 1955.

"The LDP will continue to dominate, but prime ministers will come and go," Evans said. "Japan is a democracy, but culturally and structurally, there has been no move towards pluralism."

Abe is taking advantage of this, though. Even his critics concede that he has learned from his first disastrous stint as prime minister and proven himself to be a political survivor.

Under his "Abenomics" stimulus policies, the Japanese economy has grown for six quarters in a row after two decades of recession and stagnation, now ticking along at 2.5 percent annual growth. Even if ordinary Japanese say they don't feel the improvement, at least the numbers are heading in the right direction.

Allies and other like-minded governments would welcome Abe's continuing in office. Just having a prime minister who lasts more than a year has injected some certainty and stability into governments' political and trading relationships, says one diplomat from the region.

It is especially important for the relationship with the United States, Japan's main ally.

"There were multiple moments over recent years when American officials said, 'Why bother building a relationship when he or she isn't going to be there in a few months,'" said Brad Glosserman, an American who is a visiting professor at Tama University in Tokyo. "It's hard to exaggerate the value of having this relationship."

One relationship that is serving Japan well is the bond that Abe has formed with President Donald Trump.

On the campaign trail, Trump had repeatedly lashed out at Japan, espousing a 1980s view of their trading relationship and repeatedly saying that Japan should be paying for its own defense. But Abe made determined efforts to get on the right side of Trump, being the first foreign leader to visit him after his election victory and holding a chummy summit with him at Mar-a-Lago just a few weeks after Trump's inauguration. The two regularly talk on the phone about North Korea, and Trump arrives in Japan on Nov. 5 to begin an Asian tour.

That Trump has not acted against Japan's interests - with the exception of withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal - is a testament to Abe's influence, analysts say.
 

A pamphlet featuring a portrait of Shinzo Abe, Japan's prime minister and president of the Liberal Democratic Party, during an election campaign rally in Sapporo, Japan, on Oct. 15, 2017.
EIJI OHASHI/BLOOMBERG

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