I see no other way to call it, especially after reading David Pilling’s analysis of the election in the FT, which asks, “Is it over for Japan’s Abe?” For all the missteps, gaffes, and outright arrogance in ignoring issues that the Japanese people actually want the government to address, for all the polls showing the government’s popularity slipping into Mori territory — all the gifts the government has given to the opposition — it is impossible to call this election straight up for the opposition.
First of all is the turnout problem. In any election, the lower the turnout, the better the LDP does. One could not pick (Ed. — well, they did pick it) a better day to ensure a low turnout than 29 July. Will vacationers bother with absentee ballots?
Second is the apathy/disgust problem. Much as in the US, poor governance means that the popularity of all politicians is suffering, opposition parties included. While disgust with politicians could lead to a major protest vote, it could just as easily serve to further depress voter turnout. This could be called the Ozawa problem, for when voters see the DPJ, they see not a face from the younger generation, but the familiar face of Ozawa Ichiro, LDP Lower House member from 1969, adept (and corrupt) Tanaka-Takeshita faction wheeler-dealer who remade himself into a forthright advocate of political reform. He may have been out of the LDP for fourteen years, but voters seem not to have forgotten his thirty-four years as part of the problem.
Third, it is unclear the extent to which national policy issues — read the atrocious record of the Abe Cabinet — will determine how people vote. Personalities, the political mood, the length of the tenure of the incumbents: these will be the factors that decide the individual races, because even if the DPJ has a relatively successful showing, as in 2004 when 19 of 26 PR candidates won to the LDP’s 15 of 32, it still faces tough fights across the country in races that could be influenced more by the above-mentioned factors, making them less a national referendum.
Meanwhile, while the mood seems unrelenting gloomy now, Pilling suggests that the LDP may be contributing to it intentionally, to make a narrow win that much more impressive.
What seems unlikely, however, is that anything but a clear defeat for the governing coalition will drive Abe from power. I disagree with Toshikawa Takao of Tokyo Insideline, who is quoted by Pilling as saying, “Abe has stated he will do his best to clear a simple majority. If he fails to get 51 by even one seat, I think that because of his [proud] personality, he is likely to step down.” For all of Abe’s pride, provided the government retains control of the Upper House, I do not think he will step down, even with fewer than fifty-one LDP seats. His pride did not stop him from going to Washington and abasing himself before the congressional leadership, and it won’t stop him from finding some way to spin a shoestring victory built on the back of minor parties into a new mandate for his government.
So to answer the question posed by Pilling’s article, no, it is not over yet for Prime Minister Abe.