TOKYO: Seeking to capitalise on a fractured and weak opposition and a healthy lead in the polls, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stunned Japan by gambling on a snap election more than a year before it was due.
The parallels with another world leader — Britain’s Theresa May — are striking.
In April, May caught the country off guard by calling an election, hoping to take advantage of a 20-point poll lead over the opposition Labour party and secure her own mandate to take Britain out of the European Union.
“Both leaders called a snap election at a time their public support was not going to get better,” said Sadafumi Kawato, professor of political science at the University of Tokyo.
But in May’s case, the gamble backfired spectacularly.
After a campaign widely seen as lacklustre and where May came across as distant and robotic, she lost 13 seats and was forced into a controversial deal with Northern Ireland’s ultra-conservative DUP party to cling onto a majority.
Meanwhile, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn defied predictions of an electoral meltdown and campaigned strongly, being seen as close to the voters in contrast to an aloof May, dismissed in one paper as a “dead woman walking.”
British voters were also furious that May called an election after repeatedly insisting this was not on the cards. Some experts warned Abe could face a similar backlash.
Yoel Sano, head of Global Political and Security Risk from BMI Research, said Japan’s leader may have “underestimated the electorate’s potential to switch to the opposition” and could lose support if voters see the vote as a ploy to cling onto power.
“The Japanese public may view it as a cynical and opportunistic move, especially given the severity of the North Korean crisis,” said Sano.
Polls show voters generally approve of Abe’s hawkish policy on Pyongyang — which fired two missiles over Japan in the space of a month — and he is counting on the electorate seeing him as a steady pair of hands.
‘Giant among dwarves’
Jeff Kingston, Director of Asian Studies at the Temple University Japan, said Abe’s gamble was more likely to pay off as he faces a weaker opposition than May did with Corbyn.
“Unlike in Britain with Labour, there is no opposition worthy of the name in Japan. (The ruling party) LDP is a giant among dwarves. It would take a major scandal to derail the Abe express,” Kingston told AFP.
“He may not retain his super majority but given the fractured and unprepared state of Japan’s opposition parties, it’s hard to see much risk for a commanding majority.”
The conservative LDP and its junior coalition partner Komeito enjoy a so-called super majority of two-thirds of the 475 House of Representatives.
This is crucial if Abe wishes to press forward with a constitutional overhaul to strengthen the Japanese military in the face of the North Korean threat.
Another reason Abe may be rushing ahead with an election is to cut the ground under the popular mayor of Tokyo, Yuriko Koike, who unveiled a new party “Kibo no To” (Party of Hope), just hours before the vote was called.
Here again there are parallels with Britain as some commentators believed May wanted to fight Corbyn rather than the well-liked Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, widely seen as a future Labour leader.
“Koike annihilated the LDP in Tokyo but taking that movement national will not be easy and they are not ready,” said Kingston.
Abe’s opponents have cried foul, with Kazunori Yamanoi, parliamentary head of the main opposition Democratic Party, saying it was “unthinkable” for the premier to call a snap vote “for his own reasons… at a time when Japanese citizens are frightened by the North Korean missile crisis.”
Others view the election as a way of deflecting attention from a series of scandals that have rocked Abe in recent months, including allegations of favouritism to a friend in a business deal — which the prime minister strongly denies.
“I think this will be a general election to cover up his ill doings, to move people’s attention away from the scandals,” said one voter, 33-year-old call-centre employee Mayumi Chikagawa.
But a year after 2016 produced vote surprises from Brexit to the election of Donald Trump, Temple University analyst Kingston said there was little chance of a repeat in Japan.
There was “not much enthusiasm for Abe or his policies,” acknowledged the expert.
“Half of those who support him say they do so because there is no alternative. And that’s why Abe will win. Disaffected voters have no place to go.”