Not too early to start thinking about the 2016 election?

Overall, I generally agree with MTC and Tobias Harris that while this election looks like a thumping victory, it may not necessarily enhance Abe’s ability to implement the third arrow of Abenomics and national security and constitutional changes. It will, however, have a positive short-term impact upon Abe’s ability to continue to implement the first two arrows of Abenomics relating to fiscal spending and changing the basis of taxation (particularly the corporate tax), and the continuation of BOJ-led monetary easing.

I perhaps differ a little with MTC in that I would say that the gamble has paid off, although only just. If nothing else, Abe has two more years, which if he uses it wisely and patiently (a big assumption in itself) in terms of issue selection, could result in eventual success.

He is also less likely to face a challenger in September election. A poor result in the election would have made that almost inevitable, and he has avoided this humiliation.

Now, an even more disastrous downturn in the economy or demonstration of administrative incompetence is probably required in order for a genuine challenger to emerge. Prior to Abe calling the election, the simple eating away of Abe’s support rate ahead of the 2015 LDP presidency election (as was already taking place), and the prospect of a 2016 HoR-HoC double election, would have been enough to stimulate significant concern within the LDP and a challenger. Now the House of Representatives members of the LDP will be somewhat calmed. But nine months is still a longtime, and Ishiba Shigeru waits in the wings should something unexpected take place.

I do feel, given expectations around an even more dominating victory, that Abe may have lost a little bit of momentum, nonetheless. While much has been made of the low turnout rate, it is also important to note, as MTC does, that the LDP’s PR percentage was merely a third of all votes. Expectations were that the LDP would get around 40 percent of the vote in PR at the very least. Also important to note is that the LDP’s victories in the single-member districts (SMDs) were even more dependent on the Komeito than was previously the case, which will give LDP leaders pause.

Indeed, the real winners of the election were:

Komeito

While Komeito increased the number of seats by four, compared to a LDP three-seat loss, more important was the effective elimination of two alternative parties (Your Party and the Next Generation Party) that Abe would most likely use in any intra-coalition power play to chasten a recalcitrant Komeito on security issues in particular. Furthermore, MTC estimates in the context of low voter turnout that the LDP may have been reliant on Komeito for up to 25 percent of its SMDs’ votes. If low voter turnout is going to be the new norm in Japan, then attempts to bludgeon Komeito into submission through threats of coalition dissolution will have even less credibility.

The Japan Innovation Party

In its former incarnation, the JRP was also a party that Abe could use in the manner articulated above. However, with the separation from Ishihara and merger with Eda Kenji’s Your Party offshoot, the party has embraced a more moderate, reform orientated and urban-focused party image and policy platform not so dissimilar to the original DPJ. While Hashimoto still sees areas of cooperation with Abe, incentives point in the opposite direction (as discussed below). In any respect, Hashimoto declining to run in this election enhances Eda Kenji’s leadership of the party in the Diet. With the arch-conservative Party for Future Generations being essentially obliterated, and the more moderate JIP holding its own in the PR segment of the vote, then this election may well have consolidated JIP’s electoral relevance and pointed the way to a sustainable strategy for political positioning. And as one of Abe’s ulterior motives for the election was the effective elimination of the electoral relevance of other non-left parties, then victory can be declared in the JIP only losing one seat overall.

The Japan Communist Party

The JCP came close to tripling its representation. While it may be tempting to portray the JCP as really being a principled social democratic party with an unusual relic of a name, until we see any sort of engagement with policymaking, and cooperation and compromise (god-forbid) with other non-LDP parties, then I am reluctant to ascribe much relevance to this development. But 13 more communists will collect a solid salary than prior to the election. That said, the JCP will now be able to submit non-budgetary bills to the Diet, so maybe they will prove me wrong. In any respect, a win for the communists (a phrase one does not hear often these days).

The 6人衆

(rokunin-shu – formerly known as the nana-bugyou 七奉行)

The leaders of the so-called “mainstream” of the DPJ not only see Kaieda Banri fail for the second time, leaving the way open for one of their ilk to take over the DPJ leadership, but also lose his seat. This in theory makes realignment much more manageable as members of this grouping (Okada Katsuya, Maehara Seiji, Azumi Jun, Edano Yukio, Gemba Koichiro, Noda Yoshihiko), along with Hosono Goshi, have increasingly been putting out feelers to the JIP after Ishihara and Hashimoto split the JRP.

Implications for realignment

As noted by CFR’s Shelia Smith, this election was a lesson in why it is important for the opposition to present itself as a genuine alternative with its own ideas. This rings especially true when we consider how little success the DPJ and JIP had in Tokyo’s SMDs despite some degree of cooperation and favourable electoral dynamics. Nevertheless, it would surprise me if DPJ-JIP realignment or a merger took place soon, although a Hosono Goshi or Maehara Seiji victory in the January 2015 DPJ elections might change the dynamics somewhat. Currently, I would say Edano and Hosono have the inside running, but the current leadership vacuum in the DPJ could result in almost anything happening.

While the JIP has moved more closely to the mainstream of the DPJ than many have perhaps realised, there is still a key sticking point around labour legislation and labour unions. The fact that the JIP did better than many expected on the PR ticket suggests that the more moderate strategy has the potential to work, and also means that it will likely not be absorbed into the DPJ as a rump party. Hashimoto was disappointed by the election result, but his political relevance has not been obliterated by the election as many expected. In fact, with the 2016 House of Councillors election, there is an even greater chance that the JIP can establish itself as a genuine political force. Not only can it represent itself as the non-Rengo beholden alternative to the LDP and eat into the LDP’s base, especially if third arrow reforms stagnate ahead of 2016, but the JIP has a great chance to radically eat into the DPJ’s House of Councillors seat tally. In 2016, 41 out of the current 58 DPJ House of Councillors candidates will be up for election. Remember, the DPJ lost 27 out of the 44 seats it had up for election in the first post-DPJ government election in 2013, with many going to the JRP, Your Party, and some going back to the LDP. Furthermore, the electoral system for the House of Councillors (as it currently stands) provides less incentive for a formal amalgamation or even cooperation between the two parties in urban areas compared to a House of Representatives election with many SMDs. In 2013, 42 out of the 73 non-PR seats up for grabs were in more urban or suburban multi-member districts, with a further 48 seats distributed on the basis of proportional representation.

If such realignment is going to take place, current logic would suggest the JIP would do well to hold out until after the 2016 election and see where things stand after the dust settles. It may even be able to negotiate realignment from a position of strength without as much consideration of the still electorally influential Rengo. Either way, while one election outcome is that Abe (potentially) has four more years of rule, the opposition has fewer players and four more years to sort itself out.

First take on the LDP’s election prospects

MTC has already covered off the importance of the headline support rates from the post-GDP shock Kyodo and Asahi opinion polls now out. A few more should come over the next few days.

In short, they show loss in faith in Abe, but not a catastrophic reduction in support for either the PM or the LDP at this point. If the election was held today, the likely result would be a pretty solid “victory” with the LDP-Komeito coalition easily getting over the 270 seat mark that LDP and Komeito strategists have identified as the minimum acceptable line for a reduction in the coalition’s House of Representatives majority.

Looking deeper into the Asahi poll (jp) certainly reveals enough doubts about Abe’s policy program that give a glimmer of hope for opposition parties that they may be able to push the coalition a bit harder. That is, at least in comparison with when serious discussion of a snap election first arose a few weeks ago.

Monday’s news on the economy does appear to have hurt Abe when compared to a NTV poll taken just two days prior to the announcement of 3rd quarter GDP figures when it was already clear that the consumption tax would be delayed and an election called. In this pre-Monday poll only 32 percent thought Abenomics had failed, 51 percent didn’t think so (66 percent didn’t think Abenomics was progressing according to another question in the same survey). In the post-Monday Asahi survey, while not an exactly equivalent question, we see failure rising above “success” with 39 percent believing Abe having failed, and 30 percent thinking it was a success, with assumedly 31 percent not sure.

62 percent of Asahi respondents are opposed to the election (18 percent agreeing) and 65 percent (25 percent accepting) said they did not accept Abe’s reasoning for calling the election (to go to the people in regards to delaying the consumption tax). In the Kyodo survey, 63.1 percent said they could not fathom the reason for the election, with 30 percent accepting the reasoning. 66 percent of respondents were opposed to the election in the aforementioned NTV poll, even when framed in terms of a delay in the consumption tax increase.

In terms of Abe saying he would definitely have to put the consumption tax up in April 2017, in the Asahi poll 49 percent did not evaluate positively this assertion, while 33 percent did. In a straight yes or no on putting the tax up in April 2017, 49 percent were against this, and 39 percent were in favour. Abe committing to the 2017 sales tax rise while going to people to get support for the delay and his economic policies will certainly send a confusing message for the public in terms of what kind of mandate he is asking for. One of the big challenges of this election will be how to interpret the results – of course Abe and Suga have their own views on what this election is and is not about – but for the rest of us it is unclear what it is precisely that Abe wants to claim to be able to do post-election (that he could not already do, legally or otherwise).

Perhaps the most encouraging result for the opposition comes from the question on whether the public believed that Abe’s economic policies were actually designed to improve wages and employment opportunities. Only 20 percent said the thought this was directly tied in to his economic policies, while 65 percent said they didn’t think so. This is the narrative that the opposition will increasingly play on during the next 3 weeks, and the bad GDP numbers only help this narrative.

While it may be harder for the opposition to get traction on this, despite its significance IMHO, the Asahi also asked a question relating to reform of the House of Representatives and reduction of its size. Abe agreed in 2012 to the consumption tax legislation and to cutting the House of Representatives before the next election as a symbol of government sacrifice. However, only 5 seats have been reduced to deal with the voter-value disparity (ineffectively, it is already over 2:1 again); equally important is that discussion on the electoral features of a new House of Representatives have only gotten to the stage of agreeing on a third-party mechanism for discussing options. When asked how much of a problem it was that Abe was calling an election before implementing the promised reduction in House of Representatives size, 39 percent of respondent said they thought it was a big problem, and 38 percent said it was problem to a degree.

In terms of the implications of the headline support rates, we will probably see a solid loss of seats in the single member districts (SMDs) by the LDP, but many of those candidates will likely be revived on the PR list. Notwithstanding some exogenous or unexpected event, I would expect to see the LDP gain around 20 to 25 seats on the PR list, picking up the more conservative supporters of parties like the now defunct JRP and Your Party.

According to my own perfunctory analysis on the SMDs, there are 29 districts that the opposition should easily take back from the LDP by the simple act of cooperating with each other, and there are a further 32 SMDs that should be in play if the opposition coordinates and runs a moderately successful campaign. Greater gains in a further 50 or more seats would only be likely if some serious unexpected game changer enters into the election, although in that case I would expect that to also impact upon the PR support rate as well. A lot depends on the opposition coordinating, however, although there are some signs that in some of the key SMD regions some tough decisions (jp) are being made (such as in Tokyo where somehow the LDP managed to win a majority of seats despite its candidates seldom winning more than 35 percent of the votes cast). There are also some signs that some of the more controversial members of the DPJ old guard are retiring, such as Sengoku Yoshito and Tanaka Makiko, which is probably only a benefit for the DPJ. As MTC notes, pretending the Kaieda Banri doesn’t exist might also be of help.

That said, at this stage I would expect the LDP-Komeito coalition to only lose 35 seats (including the five seats that no longer exist).

I hope to refine this analysis over the coming three weeks based on new developments.

 

 

Questioning the need to question the public

Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga was asked (jp) at a recent press conference whether, given the administration’s insistence on the sanctity of the principle of going to the public on big policy decisions, the election would also be about getting the public’s verdict on collective self-defense changes implied by the July 1 cabinet declaration. Suga responded that as constitutional revision is in the LDP’s manifesto, then it was not necessary for them to get the public’s opinion on collective self-defense specifically, and implied that it was not as important a decision/significant policy change as Abe delaying a tax increase.

So, (controversially) changing the constitutional fabric of the nation without even a parliamentary vote is not a big decision, but putting off a tax increase which everyone supports and where you already have the statutory power to do so, is?

When reporters pushed back by pointing out to Suga that the secrets law was not written in the manifesto, he retorted “there is no need to go to the public on every issue…only for important changes.”

So, despite arguing for the last two years that both collective self-defense and the secrets law were essential for Japan’s national security, now they are suddenly not very important decisions?

This line of questioning came from Abe’s 18th November criticism of the DPJ for pursuing a consumption tax hike that was not indicated in its 2009 and 2010 election manifestos (although, it was certainly in the LDP’s manifesto!).

Criticism also came (jp) from the (quite far) right of the spectrum as well, with Next Generation sec-gen Yamada Hiroshi (likely exasperated that his party’s continued existence is doubtful) arguing that there was no need to dissolve the house, and that while a tax increase would justify going to the people, he’d never heard of a case where someone would go to the people for a tax reduction or to not implement a tax increase. Other opposition leaders have also raised the small technical problem of the fact that both the public and all the opposition parties support not increasing the consumption tax at this point, so it was not, philosophically speaking, possible for it to become an election issue of contention and the focal point of legitimation. Thus it was clear to everyone that the LDP was only acting on the basis of self-serving party and partisan interests. Two terms you are likely to hear a lot from the opposition  over the next three weeks in this vein are 党利党略 (privileging party interests) and 自己中解散 (self-centered dissolution).

 

Big Drop in Support for Abe, Still Considering an Early Election?

Two recent surveys have indicated quite bad news for the Abe cabinet. Particularly so, because the polls overlapped with recognition in the Japanese media that Abe had managed to score a meeting with Xi Jinping at APEC.

First, NHK (n=963; CI=3.2%) showed (日) a drop of 8 percentage points from 52 to 44 percent in Abe’s support rate, with an increase of 4 percentage points in disapproval to 38 percent. This was at the lowest level the NHK had recorded for Abe 2.0. Interestingly, the public is less convinced not only with the implementation and results of Abenomics, but are also becoming sceptical of the policy program itself. 47 percent evaluated Abe’s economic policies positively to at least some degree, while 48 percent were unconvinced to a lesser or greater degree. Only 10 percent said that they could feel a recovery, while 54 percent said they could not, and 33 percent were not sure either way. 77 percent said that to at least some degree they felt that food prices had become a greater burden, while 19 percent said otherwise. With the consumption tax, 20 percent indicated it should go ahead as planned, 41 percent said implementation should be delayed, and 33 percent were simply opposed to an increase.

The Asahi Shimbun (n=1898; CI= 2.2%) also recorded (日) a drop of 7 percentage points compared to its survey taken only two weeks before hand. It’s current level of 42 percent is precisely the same as the level just immediately prior to the cabinet reshuffle in September. Abe’s disapproval was up 6 points to 36 percent, one point higher than September. The LDP also dropped 4 percentage points in support to 33 percent, although this support did not go to any of the other parties. 48 percent now say that they do not support any political party.

The Asahi asked respondents whether they felt their livelihood had improved because of Abe’s economic policies; 4 percent said it had improved, 28 percent said it had gotten worse, and 66 percent said it had not changed. In regards to the consumption tax increase, the Asahi’s question were more straightforward, with 67 percent being opposed and 24 percent in favour. It was 71 percent and 22 percent respectively two weeks prior. There was strong sentiment that a tax rise to 10 percent would be very bad for the public – 84 percent said that they felt concerned that the rise would have a negative impact upon the economy (27 percent saying a significant negative impact), while 13 percent said they did not feel so.

Respondents were also asked about the previous consumption tax increase to 8 percent in April – 70 percent said that to at least some degree they had felt its impact, while 29 percent said otherwise.

The Asahi also ran with the question about the likelihood of respondents continuing to support/not support Abe’s cabinet. There was little change compared to the September poll, with 17 percent of the public appearing to be hardcore Abe supporters, 53 percent being potential Abe supporters, and 22 percent vowing to never support Abe.

For the 42% who support the Abe Cabinet:

I will support the Abe Cabinet from now on

42% (17% of total respondents)

My support for the Abe Cabinet is not guaranteed

55% (23% of total respondents)

For the 36% who do not support the Abe Cabinet:

I will not support the Abe Cabinet from now on

59% (22% of total respondents)

It is possible that I will support the Abe Cabinet 

35% (13% of total respondents)

Despite this, there is still quite vigorous discussion about Abe possibly calling a snap election, to take place before the year is out, especially if he decides to delay the consumption tax rise to 10 percent. This might seem extremely unusual given his now plummeting support rate and the fact that the public does not want to see an election.* It would be seen as a very cynical ploy and there would be questions about exactly what it is Abe would be campaigning on. Future consumption tax rises, turning on nuclear power plants, and a still yet unclear record on improving the economy (at least from the average voter’s point of view)?

The problem is, none of that may matter. As noted above, effectively 2/3rds of the electorate that does not support the LDP do not support any of the other political parties, with the DPJ still hovering around 6 percent support. Furthermore, voters may not have actual real choice to vote against the LDP anyway. While the LDP now has only 5 seats to fill for its 286 Single Members Districts (SMDs), with Komeito being effectively handed 9 SMDs without LDP competition (total 295 SMD seats), recent reports put the DPJ at less than half of those SMDs having official candidates. Hashimoto’s and Eda Kenji’s party (Ishin no Tō) also have only around 50 candidates at last count and are aiming for around 70 to 80. While Kaieda Banri might be talking tough (日) by daring Abe to call a snap election, if it was called this year then there may be a very large number of SMDs where the most prominent LDP alternative would be the Japan Communist Party.

* In the aforementioned NHK survey 15 percent said they wanted to see an election soon, 26 percent said they thought it should be put off for a while, while 50 percent preferred an election when the current House of Representatives term ends in December 2016.

Back to Square One for Abe?

The last set of posts reported on Abe arresting his declining cabinet support rate, and then reversing the trend after the cabinet reshuffle. A series of “scandals” involving these new cabinet members and financial and electoral improprieties has greatly undermined the working of the new cabinet, and Abe appears to be back where he was in July after the first round of post-CSD declaration polls came in.

Approval: Abe’s Popularity Declines

On the approval side of matters, the change has not been so severe. The polls from TV networks show a 4.8 percent average drop (Figure 1), with the traditional media showing a 6.1 percent drop, for an overall drop of 5.5 percent (Figure 3). For the latter result, however, we see the Nikkei and Yomiuri seeing rather larger drops compared to their rapid reaction polls taken immediately after the cabinet reshuffle (Figure 2). A lesson to be learned there for these two pro-LDP papers, perhaps, as the changes coming from these two polls has magnified  Abe’s drop in approval.* Or it may well suggest that Abe’s increase in approval after the reshuffle was not really as high as initially estimated. Figure 4 shows that the drop in this month overall was as high as the drop that we saw after the Collective Self-Defense decision in July. Whether this is due to the cabinet failings, due to increasing frustration with the lack of progress on various reform measures, or due to the perhaps artificially high post-cabinet reshuffle numbers is another question (Click on figures to see full size).

Figure 1: Cabinet Approval Rates from TV Networks (April to October)

Figure 1: Cabinet Approval Rates from TV Networks (April to October)

Figure 2: Cabinet Approval Rates Traditional Media (April to October)

Figure 2: Cabinet Approval Rates Traditional Media (April to October)

Figure 3: Average Approval Rates of all polls

Figure 3: Average Approval Rates of all polls

Figure 4: Average Change in Approval

Figure 4: Average Change in Approval

Disapproval: Consistent Increases in almost all Polls

On the disapproval side, then there have been perhaps more worrying changes for Abe. Abe’s approval ratings have been bouncing around for a while now as voters appear ambivalent about his policy program. Disapproval seemed to move a little bit less dramatically, however. The last month saw reasonably significant upward movement in Abe’s disapproval after two months of improvement. Last month’s increase in disapproval was more than double the increase in disapproval after the CSD cabinet declaration in July (Figure 8). In this case, the upward trend in disapproval was more or less equally shared among the surveys, although a lack of movement from the Jiji and Asahi polls made this result less bad for Abe (Figure 6).

Figure 5: Cabinet Disapproval TV Networks

Figure 5: Cabinet Disapproval TV Networks

Figure 6: Cabinet Disapproval Traditional Media

Figure 6: Cabinet Disapproval Traditional Media

Figure 7: Cabinet Disapproval Average

Figure 7: Cabinet Disapproval Average

Figure 8: Average Change in Disapproval

Figure 8: Average Change in Disapproval

Abe’s Buffer: Net Support

Nonetheless, Abe has for close to two years managed to maintain a positive net support rate (Figure 9). While the last month was almost as bad as the decrease in his buffer in July (Figure 10), the lack of an effective opposition continues to ensure that he sits in the comfortable position (for a Japanese prime minister) of being more popular than unpopular.

Figure 9: Net Support (Approval subtract Disapproval)

Figure 9: Net Support (Approval subtract Disapproval)

Figure 10: Change over Time of Net Support

Figure 10: Change over Time of Net Support

Election Watch

Nevertheless, with much to do and the government suffering setbacks and the opposition going after the LDP in parliament, Abe has probably missed his chance to call a snap election this year under this cabinet, if this was ever really seriously on the cards at all. He would look like he was running scared and with few real achievements to call upon in campaigning. The LDP would still win, but would unlikely improve its position. If Abe’s reshuffle had seen two to three months of stability and a policy success or two, then a snap election, leading into early December, could have been a possibility. With budget season coming up, Abe and his cabinet tied up in parliamentary proceedings other than policy, it is unlikely that an early election will take place before August next year.

An ideal time for the LDP could be the unified local elections next year after the budget has been passed, something that will be less onerous for the LDP than it was during the DPJ years. However, Komeito is extremely unlikely to support this due to wanting to maximize their organizational resources during two separate campaigns rather than a local and a national one at the same time. After April, the LDP is likely to go into top gear to try and get legislation approved to make good on the commitments made in the US-Japan Revised Defense Guidelines, and any other enabling legislation deriving from the policy commitments noted in the July 1 cabinet declaration on Japan’s seamless defense that the LDP might be confident of getting through. Abe is likely to want to get through what he thinks he can get through reasonably uncontroversially, and then attack more controversial legislation perhaps after an election with a renewed mandate. This could be after the full term has been served, but it also wouldn’t surprise me if a snap election was called in August next year just before Abe goes up for reelection for the LDP leadership, if he is in any condition to contest one or the other of these elections. If Abe is strong, a national election before the LDP election would put him in a strong position to force through a change in LDP rules at some point to allow a third term as president, which would be required for him to serve out the full four years of a new House of Representatives term  and avoid a mandatory change in LDP leader less than one year out from an election (and also allow Abe to just make it all the way to the Olympics if successful again in 2019). If Abe’s position at the time makes him vulnerable to a challenge, this would change the calculus again, however – an election is likely to take place after the LDP election in such a case.

But the way things have been going lately, and with Abe losing his aura of invincibility, these long-term scenarios look much more doubtful than they did even two months ago. And this will make it all the more difficult for him to tackle the already tough issues of nuclear power plant restarts, the consumption tax rise, and making concessions on the TPP.

* The Yomiuri in its polling after the cabinet reshuffle pushed respondents a little bit harder to come down on the side of either approval or disapproval than some of the other survey organizations.

Striking while the Iron is (Very) Hot

In the very quickly put together post-Cabinet reshuffle surveys, both the Nikkei and Yomiuri (日) Shimbun have found 10 percent plus increases in support for Abe. Much of this appears to have to do with the appointment of five women in the cabinet roughly in line with Abe’s goal of having 30 percent of executive positions being occupied by women by 2020, and Abe leaving in place senior politicians such as Aso (consumption tax), Amari (TPP), Suga (everything) and Kishida (diplomacy, getting an APEC date with Xi) with jobs to do in the upcoming 13 months until the 2015 September LDP election.

Kyodo found slightly less dramatic results, but still recorded an increase (日) from 49.8% to 54.9% in cabinet support, and a healthier reduction in disapproval (日) of 10 percent. Mainichi bucked (日) the trend and recorded no change in support rate (47%) and a not particularly significant 2% decrease in disapproval.

Nevertheless, with the Yomiuri finding 64 percent support, and the Nikkei finding 60 percent support for the Cabinet, and 46% and 44% support for the LDP respectively, this will not put the rumours of a snap election to rest. Two surveys taken just prior to the cabinet reshuffle suggest, after all, that both Abe and the LDP will likely never look so good.

When survey organizations in Japan inquire into cabinet support, the follow-up question is usually about why the public supports (or does not) the cabinet. Party support is usually left as it is – a problem when more than 50% of the electorate across surveys is generally undecided about the party that they support. This can give general insights into whether it is policy, party, or personality that is driving up or down support, but is otherwise unhelpful. The Nikkei and the Asahi Shimbun decided to do things a little differently in August. I hope they continue. The Nikkei followed up the usual question on party support by asking the 61 percent of unaffiliated voters who they leaned towards in terms of preferences. Here are the results:

Currently, which political party do you support? (N=1039)

Party support

 

For those who don’t support a party or can’t say/don’t know, if you had to choose one party that you feel some affinity for, please indicate below (n=633)

Party Affinity

Total of party supported/affinity (n=1039)

Combined Affinity Support for Party

With the exception of the 2005 postal reform snap election, the 37 percent is not too far from what the LDP has usually achieved in the proportional representation vote component at election time over the last decade, whether it has done well or not in terms of receiving parliamentary seats. For the LDP to score in the mid-40s in line with the Nikkei and Yomiuri polls is an aberration in many ways if truly indicative. More importantly, there is practically no support, explicit or implicit, for any of the opposition parties. The DPJ seems close to dead as a political brand. They have only identified 131 candidates for the next election to stand in the 295 single member districts. The Unity Party and the JRP still have not settled on a way to work with each other, let alone proceeded on to figuring out an accommodation with the DPJ for contesting the single member districts; settling on an anti-LDP candidate for each of the single member districts is the fundamental priority for the opposition if it wishes to contest an election with the LDP, even an unpopular one, in any meaningful way.

The Asahi just a week before the cabinet change inquired into support for the cabinet. They found only 42% support (n=1581). They went further and essentially asked respondents whether they would be likely to shift their views on supporting/not supporting the cabinet.

For the 42% who support the Abe Cabinet:

I will support the Abe Cabinet from now on

42% (18% of total respondents)

My support for the Abe Cabinet is not guaranteed

52% (22% of total respondents)

For the 35% who do not support the Abe Cabinet:

I will not support the Abe Cabinet from now on

60% (21% of total respondents)

It is possible that I will support the Abe Cabinet 

34% (12% of total respondents)

This would suggest that while 52 percent of respondents either support Abe or would be willing to support him, only 18 percent of the electorate are “hard core” Abe supporters.

If we factor in that on average the Asahi usually finds around 5% less support for the LDP government than other surveys (without passing judgement on which is the “true” figure), then, all other things being equal and normal, a support rate of 55 percent plus should be seen as the maximal, high watermark support rate for Abe at this point in time.

If they are going to go for a snap election, they may as well do it now – notwithstanding it’d probably be seen as too clever by half.

Abe Arrests Deteriorating Support Rate: Still Has Promises to Keep

Please see my introduction to this series. Very Brief “Methodology” Note Here

Find below a brief run down of cabinet support rate data tracked since April 2014 (when the first increment of the consumption tax rise was implemented). Where necessary for the sake of readability, I have split the data from individual polls into two categories – data coming from television organizations in Japan, and those coming from “traditional” print media organizations.

As we can see from the charts below, both television and print organizations recorded an overall downward trend in cabinet approval over the last 5 months, with significant drops from May until and including July being discernible.

Television Organizations – Cabinet Approval

CabsupportTVAugust

 

 Print Media Organizations – Cabinet Support

CabsupportNewspaperAugust

 

 Combined Average Support

CombinedAvesupportaugust

 

Cabinet approval appears to have stabilized or increased between July and August, however. The exact cause of this is hard to discern as no particular issue or event stood out during August. Perhaps the perception of “safe-driving” after Abe de-emphasized the urgency of security changes subsequent to reading the July polls has been a factor.

The overall average trend, nevertheless, reveals an average drop off in cabinet support of six percentage points from 54 percent to 48 percent during the April-August period.

Of interest is that that in July, after the “collective self-defense” cabinet decision, we saw an average of a 5.15 percentage points drop in cabinet support across all polls in a single month, with that month seeing net support for the cabinet drop by 11.14 percentage points across all polls. The average net support (approval minus disapproval) is tracked by month below. We find a general deterioration in the Abe administration’s “support buffer” from April onwards, with the July results suggesting that it might only be a matter of time until disapproval outweighed approval for Abe Cabinet 2.0. August however, was a relatively good month with all but two polls showing an increase in support and net support, and a stabilising of disapproval (also below). Critical to the Abe administration, particularly after the today’s reveal of Abe Cabinet 2.1, will be whether this August trend can be sustained, or at least net approval maintained at around the current rate. Given the perilous state of the opposition, maintaining the current levels of support will deliver to Abe and the LDP victory in any election, thus ensuring Abe remains safe in his role as LDP president. This could be even more important if the long-standing rumours of a snap election in the coming months come true (see Shisaku here for the most recent incarnation).

Combined Net Support

Combined Average Net Support

Combined Average Disapproval

Combined Average Disapproval August

The Perils of Making and Fulfilling Promises

There are still a number of variables than could collude to  upset or even unseat Abe, despite appearing to have arrested the slow decline of his premiership. Abe and his cabinet have been masterful at putting off these issues and thus not antagonizing the public or important stakeholders and constituencies too much over the last 1.75 years.

There are the issues connected to the nuclear power plant restarts, especially with the Fukushima gubernatorial election coming up. Without the restarts, Abe’s goals of stimulating the economy and/or sustaining the (still unconvincing) initial gains from Abenomics will remain subject to the ever present drag of higher cost energy imports, irrespective of what happens with the promised “third arrow” reforms that are supposed to be forthcoming. Okinawa and Futenma relocation facility tensions loom on the horizon.

The decision over the promised, but very unpopular rise in the consumption tax from 8% to 10% will also need to be negotiated (possibly in the ostensible form of making concessions to Komeito taking the tax off necessities and fresh foods – a bureaucrat’s dream come true of little policy sense).

Abe has also raised the stakes around the Sino-Japanese relationship. Can Abe, by foregoing a Yasukuni visit in August, convince Xi Jinping to meet with him at APEC in November? Is Xi waiting to see what Abe’s domestic position is like around November before deciding one way or another? There would, after all, be no point in meeting with Abe if it looks like the PRC can wait him out. Also important to factor in is that Xi not meeting with Abe could, or I would argue is likely to, precipitate another visit to the Yasukuni shrine in December, with unpredictable political consequences for most, except for the CCP and Xi who will look wise and not unreasonable.

2015

The new year will then bring a final agreement on the re-revised US-Japan Defense Guidelines. This will require the Abe government to implement the promises made to the United States as well as fulfil the expectations raised by the July 1 Cabinet decision. This could still be a fraught process (see forthcoming CPI article. Up now).

The new year will likely also bring the TPP back onto the agenda – if Obama somehow manages to acquire “fast-track” authority from Congress, then it is likely a final deal will be done. The implementation will require another promise to be fulfilled to the US (the credibility of the pivot will be greatly enhanced or undermined by having Japan sign off or not on a TPP agreement, even a “compromised” one) as well as to Abe’s most vigorous domestic backers in the form of the Keidanren and corporate Japan.

Throw in Abe’s most long-standing promise – yes, the one that basically launched his career – to bring home or establish the whereabouts of the remaining DPRK abductees. Success of any substantive kind could be a massive coup for Abe, and may even bolster the Abe administration even if the economy worsens or governing becomes distinctly more difficult as described above. Of course, just writing the words “North Korea” and “Kim Jong-un“, and “strained DPRK-PRC relationship”, should be enough to demonstrate why this is a pretty dubious expectation to rely on for Abe to demonstrate leadership and independent diplomatic strength.

So far the Abe administration has been generally masterful in avoiding the big decisions and not alienating itself too much from its supporters and public sentiment. The question is, how long will they be able to get away with this?

 

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