international analysis and commentary

Japan at the polls: a rise of populist nationalism?

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The Japanese people will elect their next prime minister on December 16th. Amidst political competition, sluggish economic growth, rising territorial disputes and nuclear energy uncertainty, the result may have a profound and lasting impact on the country. The stage is set for the return to power of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) led by former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, but there is also a widespread desire for further reform of the country’s dysfunctional political system.

December 16th will be the first Lower House election to take place since the historic Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) landslide victory in August 2009. The DPJ’s victory in 2009 ended almost five decades of continuous LDP one-party rule. Despite the DPJ’s majority in the House of Representatives, the party was not able to deliver the reforms it had promised. Plus, internal party bickering led to the succession of three prime ministers (Hatoyama, Kan and now Noda) in just over three years. Unsurprisingly, Prime Minister Noda’s approval ratings – and his chances of being elected to lead the country – have plummeted.

Without delving into all the details of the latest opinion polls, it is clear Japan’s next government will have to be formed through a multi-party coalition. The de facto two-party system of the DPJ and LDP is severely challenged by an undecided electorate confronted with an array of new, small, regional, single-issue parties, for a total of 12 camps running to elect candidates in the 480 seats available.

In fact, a Kyodo News poll conducted at the beginning of December showed that 41.5% of voters remain undecided. Swing voters have the potential to empower Nippon Ishin no Kai or Japan Restoration Party, (JRP) to become the country’s second political force behind the LDP. The JRP was formed by staunch nationalist and former Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara and by Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto. This party has the potential to become a local force for change, and can count on a very strong electoral base in the metropolitan areas of Tokyo and Osaka. However, it has to reconcile the diverse views of its two leaders. While Hashimoto and Ishihara have easily agreed on policies calling for a smaller central government and stronger local authorities, key issues such as foreign policy and nuclear energy have required major compromises. The inconsistency of their views might greatly hinder their electoral credibility.

Other forces, such as the Japan Future Party led by Yukiko Kada, have coalesced with smaller parties over a stridently anti-nuclear platform with aims to phase out nuclear energy in a decade. All smaller parties aim to position themselves for leverage over the new government once the election is over. Altogether, the LDP is likely to become the first party and through a coalition with its traditional ally New Komeito and a smaller party or two might regain the power it lost in 2009.

Turning to the issues at stake during the election campaign, candidates are battling primarily over policies on how to reignite economic growth and how to address the future of nuclear energy. On the foreign policy front, the key question is how to deal with increasingly complex security scenarios in North East Asia.

In short, the LDP intends to revitalize the economy with bold monetary easing, set the Central Bank’s key policy interest rate below zero and purchase government construction bonds as a way of beating deflation. Abe’s party also pledges to set a clear inflation target of 2%. The DPJ instead is campaigning to continue its reforms which included a proposed increase in the consumption tax and reforming the health system through the issuing of deficit-financing government bonds. Furthermore, both parties concur on the positive economic effects trade agreements can have. The decision of whether or not to join the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiation agreement cuts across party lines but both parties have signaled their willingness to proceed with TPP.

Another key issue is the future of Japan’s nuclear energy. According to the LDP manifesto, if Abe was to win the party might continue its traditional policy of promoting nuclear power generation by private-sector utilities under strong government control. The LDP’s energy policy is vague as it only promises to make the decision on whether to restart idled reactors within three years and establish the best possible combination of power sources within 10 years. The DPJ instead commits to end Japan’s reliance on nuclear power generation by the end of the 2030s. Furthermore, the DPJ calls for investment in sustainable energy, rather than public works projects, as a measure for economic revitalization.

On foreign policy the positions of the LDP and DPJ are even more at odds. Fueled by the recent territorial disputes with China over control of the Senkaku islands and exacerbated by North Korea’s announcement of launching a satellite between December 10th and 22nd, many commentators have emphasized the risk of a rise in populist nationalism. Shinzo Abe has seized the opportunity not only by promising to permanently station public servants in the disputed Senkaku Islands, he also wants to allow Japan to exercise its right to collective self-defense and expand the number of troops and defense budget. For electoral gains, Abe is actively projecting a hardline almost militarist diplomatic agenda. The DPJ’s position is more nuanced. Confident in a revamped US-Japan alliance after some short term diplomatic incidents, Noda has obtained US guarantees that Washington will help manage the territorial dispute with China to preclude any further escalation. Although a difference in the foreign policies of the LDP and DPJ exists, it is misleading to depict Japan either as a newly militarist power or as a pacifist country – as both images overlook the “normal” role it can indeed have in today’s East Asia.

Yet, the temptation remains strong to play the nationalist card. Is prompting the electorate with patriotic and populist rhetoric a winning strategy? The choice rests with the Japanese people.