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Japanese will once more go to the polls this Sunday to give Prime Minister Shinzo Abe a thumbs up or a thumbs down on his performance as prime minister. This snap election for the lower house of Japan’s Diet is the second since Abe returned to lead his country in 2012. Early dynamics suggested Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike and her new party, the Party of Hope, might challenge the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s hold over the conservative vote, but she declined to run in the race herself. Instead, the story of this election is of rivalry among opposition legislators—divisions that Abe’s snap election has brought into sharp relief.
So what should we expect on Sunday?
First, all polling among major media outlets suggests a return of Abe's coalition and thus a significant victory for the prime minister. The question will be how big of a majority voters will give him to work with. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) initially prepared to lose over 40 seats (the total in the new Diet will be 465), but now it looks likely that Abe’s party will end up close to its pre-election 287 seats. With Komeito’s expected 35 seats, the new Abe government will have a comfortable majority, although not necessarily the super-majority the Abe cabinet once enjoyed. (A two-thirds majority would require 310.) It will also likely solidify Abe’s leadership within the LDP.
Second, this election has been fascinating, even for Japan’s relatively blasé voters. The media headlines have focused on the fast-paced excitement of political realignment in which Koike and now Yukio Edano of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) have played starring roles. But Abe and Natsuo Yamaguchi, president of the Komeito party, have also captured the stage. Stump speeches by all party leaders have been animated, drawing large crowds. Polling suggests that voters have a high interest in this year’s electoral drama, and thus voter turnout should be higher than the anemic 52.7 percent of Abe’s last election in 2014.
Third, while Koike’s new party seemed to be the darling of the media early in the campaign, it is the other new opposition party, the CDP, that is drawing the most attention in these final days of the campaign. Edano is viewed fondly by most Japanese, remembered for his compassionate and calm role as chief cabinet secretary during the 2011 disasters. He has drawn particularly large crowds and challenged Japanese voters to think more carefully about Japan’s values and its successes. Edano has argued that in his heart of hearts, he is not a liberal but a conservative—someone who cherishes his Japanese identity. But in this election, the CDP is the center left party among a field of center right and right parties. Only the Japanese Communist Party stands on the far left. While the Party of Hope seemed an early favorite for being the second largest party in the Diet, taking 80 or more seats, it seems now that the CDP will eat into that lead, and both parties could emerge from the election splitting more evenly the share of opposition party seats.
Finally, the constellation of political parties in this election now reveals without a doubt that Japan is on its way to a serious deliberation on constitutional revision. The LDP and Komeito have already come to an understanding that amending the constitution (as opposed to revising the current language) is the right way to go, and Prime Minister Abe suggested adding text to Article 9 to ensure that no one can challenge the constitutionality of Japan’s Self-Defense Force. Of all seven political parties today, large and small, only two—the CDP and the Japanese Communist Party—continue to advocate leaving the existing constitution unchanged. When this election is over, the majority of Japanese legislators in the lower house will likely agree that the time has come to change the 1947 document, and they will prepare to debate what should be amended first.
Stayed tuned on Monday for an in-depth look at the election outcome and what it means for Japan’s foreign policy.