Japan's Prime Minister Isn't Popular, But His Coalition Won A Supermajority

Oct 23, 2017
Originally published on October 23, 2017 10:56 am

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling coalition now has a two-thirds supermajority in the parliament. That's after capturing more than 300 of the 465 seats in Japan's lower house that were up for grabs on Sunday.

Abe dissolved the parliament and called a snap election just weeks ago in a bid to move on from cronyism scandals that dogged him and to get a mandate for issues from economic stimulus to a controversial revision of Japan's postwar, pacifist constitution.

He appears to have gotten it. But it doesn't mean the Japanese are particularly enthusiastic about their leader. Tokyo voter Omi Kumiko braved the outer bands of a typhoon to cast a ballot against Shinzo Abe's ruling party — the liberal democrats — or LDP.

"I know that turnout tends to go down when there's rain so I made sure to come and vote," Kumiko said. She's among the minority of voters who picked anybody but candidates in Abe's party. His ruling LDP represents Japan's establishment conservative wing and it has dominated Japanese politics all but a few times since 1955.

"The LDP might not win a lot of enthusiastic endorsement from voters, but they are considered better than the alternative," says Jeffrey Kingston, who heads Asia studies at Japan's Temple University.

In the run-up to this election, the existing alternative — the opposition Democratic Party — split up. And the upstart parties that replaced it to challenge Abe are only weeks old. They lacked money, momentum and a turnout machine.

"[Abe] doesn't really have plausible, strong rivals. And he's gonna make the case to everybody look flaws and all in the middle of a national security crisis, do you really want to trust these untested leaders of newbie parties? And he's winning that argument," Kingston says.

It was enough to convince many Japanese voters to choose the LDP.

"Rather than policy, it's about electing someone you can trust," voter Akira Wada said, after calling his ballot in Tokyo's Shinjuku. "I believe they're trustworthy."

The trust issue comes into focus especially during tense times. Twice this year, North Korea's missiles have flown over Japan, triggering sirens, the J-alert emergency text message system and giving residents a scare.

"This creates a rally around the flag tendency and so this has clearly benefited Abe and the LDP," Kingston says.

Still — as he pushes ahead with economic stimulus and possible changes to Japan's postwar, pacifist constitution, Abe is not personally popular. A majority of respondents in public opinion polls said they don't want Abe to continue as prime minister, but he will — because of no plausible alternatives — and voter apathy.

"It doesn't matter who gets elected, nothing will change. So why even vote?" said Tokyo resident Daichi Kimura. He speaks for the nearly half of eligible Japanese voters who didn't cast a ballot at all in this election.

"Even if people at the top change, nothing is going to change in Japan," Kimura said.

To make those frustrations known, a group called the "Support No Party" party got on the ballot this time around. Enough voters picked it at the ballot box that the "No Party" party captured some 125,000 votes. Its signature issue is that it's sick of politicians.


Jake Adelstein contributed to this story.

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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's party now has a two-thirds super majority in the parliament. That's after voters cast ballots in a snap election over the weekend. Abe sought a mandate for issues ranging from the economy to the military, and his party appears to have received a mandate even though Japanese voters seem unexcited about the man at the top. NPR's Elise Hu reports.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Rain drenched much of Japan this election day as the outer bands of a typhoon moved in, but it didn't deter voters like Omi Kumiko. She showed up at a polling place in Tokyo's Shinjuku neighborhood to cast a ballot against Shinzo Abe's ruling party the Liberal Democrats, or LDP.

OMI KUMIKO: (Speaking Japanese).

HU: "I've been opposed to the LDP for a long time," Kumiko says, "and I know that turnout tends to go down when there's rain so I made sure to come out and vote."

HU: She is part of the minority of voters who picked anybody but those in Abe's party. His ruling LDP represents Japan's establishment conservative wing, and it's dominated Japanese politics all but a few times since 1955.

JEFFREY KINGSTON: The LDP might not win a lot of enthusiastic endorsement from voters, but they are considered better than the alternative.

HU: That's Jeffrey Kingston, who heads Asia studies at Japan's Temple University. In this election, the existing alternative, the opposition Democratic Party, split up and the upstart parties that took its place to challenge Abe are only weeks old.

KINGSTON: He doesn't really have plausible strong rivals, and he's going to make the case to everybody, look, flaws and all, in the middle of a national security crisis, do you really want to trust these untested leaders of newbie parties? And he's winning that argument.

HU: Voter Akira Wada told us it was enough to convince him to choose the LDP.

AKIRA WADA: (Through interpreter) Rather than political policy, it's about electing someone you can trust. I believe they're trustworthy.

HU: The trust issue comes into focus especially during tense times. Twice this year, North Korea's missiles have flown over Japan, triggering sirens, the J-alert emergency text message system and giving residents a scare. Jeff Kingston.

KINGSTON: This creates a rally-around-the-flag tendency, and so this has clearly benefitted Abe and the LDP.

HU: Still, as he pushes ahead with economic stimulus and possible changes to Japan's post-war pacifist constitution, Abe is not personally popular. A majority of respondents in public opinion polls said they don't want Abe to continue as prime minister, but he will because of no plausible alternatives and voter apathy.

DAICHI KIMURA: (Through interpreter) It doesn't matter who gets elected. Nothing will change. So why even vote?

HU: Tokyo resident Daichi Kimura speaks for the nearly half of Japanese eligible voters here who didn't cast a ballot at all this election.

KIMURA: (Through interpreter) And even if the people at the top change, nothing is going to change in Japan.

HU: To make those frustrations known, a group called the Support No Party Party got on the ballot this time around. Enough voters picked it that the No Party Party captured more than a hundred-thousand votes. Its signature issue is that it's sick of politicians. Elise Hu, NPR News, Tokyo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.