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.




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.

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



 Print Media Organizations – Cabinet Support



 Combined Average Support



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.


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?


The Secret Life of a Kiwi PhD Candidate

I will be starting today what I will endeavor to make a monthly feature. Growing out of my PhD, I have been tracking a large amount of polling information over the last few years and further back into the past in regards to Japanese politics and foreign policy. If the data exists, I likely know about it, if not have already worked it into a chart of some sort.

While most of this information and the associated analysis will be kept under wraps for the time being, in an effort to blog at least once a month I will provide a run down of the latest cabinet support rate data from over 11 different survey organizations, and analysis of any other survey questions from the previous month that piqued my interest.

The quality of the analysis will likely be directly correlated with the amount of time I have, but if you have a better take on the data than I do, then please feel free to continue the conversation in the comments.

Very Brief Methodology Note: I am using polls only from organizations that take a nationwide probability sample, preferably using two-stage stratified random sampling methods. These polls generally derive 1000 participants from a population sample, although some organizations such as the Asahi often acquire a sample size of up to 2000. Assuming a minimum sample size of around 900-1000 participants, the confidence interval for these surveys is approximately 2.2 percent at a 95 percent confidence level, and 2.9 percent at a 99 percent confidence level.  Most of these survey organizations’ surveys have participation rates of around 50 percent, which in contemporary surveying is actually quite robust. That said, this does not mean all polls are created equal and I will over time point out those polls which yield results that deviate consistently from the median and average poll results.

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