North Korea threat propels Abe to decisive victory

Shinzo Abe won a clear victory in Japan’s snap election last Sunday, and is now on course to be Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, says Richard Lloyd Parry in The Times. His Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) took 281 of the 465 seats in the Diet.

Together with the seats won by its coalition partner, Komeito, this gives the government the “super-majority” needed to call a referendum on changes to Japan’s pacifist constitution: the “passionate wish of the prime minister and many of his conservative supporters”.

Abe’s ostensible justification for calling an early election was to have a mandate to deal with a nuclear-armed North Korea, which has threatened to “sink” Japan, but his timing was opportunistic and propitious, says Robin Harding in the Financial Times.

The opposition Democratic Party, in disarray at the time of Abe’s announcement, disbanded a week later, freeing candidates to seek a nomination from the Party of Hope, a new party created by Yuriko Koike, the governor of Tokyo. However, Koike then decided to impose a “purity” test on candidates, brutally excluding any of who failed it, which led to a public backlash. 

The truth is that there was little alternative to the LDP, says The Wall Street Journal. This, combined with low voter turnout of barely 54%, leaves Abe with a strong electoral mandate but a disaffected public. A poll just before the election found that 51% of Japanese opposed his re-election. He may be a “safe pairs of hands”, but his desire to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution is unpopular.

While growth has risen of late, some of his government’s promised structural reforms designed to boost the economy’s long-term growth rate have not materialised. Without the North Korean threat, he may well have lost the election.

The Japanese worry that the US might not retaliate for an attack on Tokyo in case it puts their country at risk, and China has stoked enmity with Japan over the disputed Senkaku Islands. “If Xi Jinping doesn’t want Japan to rearm, he can cut off Kim Jong-un’s food and oil lifelines. Otherwise the balance of power in northeast Asia will shift in ways China won’t like.”