I want to add an additional note on a theme that has emerged in the final week of the campaign. As election day has approached, the Abe cabinet’s and its representatives have introduced foreign policy into the campaign in the form of North Korean policy. Perhaps not surprisingly, the LDP has borrowed a page from the 2004 Bush-Cheney reelection campaign, suggesting that an LDP defeat on Sunday will give comfort to Pyongyang. (Karl Rove keeping himself busy, perhaps?)
Here is Chief Cabinet Secretary Shiozaki on the hustings in Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture (from an Asahi article not online): “The most pleased with a loss in the election will be the DPJ. Perhaps number two will be North Korea. The abortion of the Abe line will send a mistaken message to North Korea.” Shiozaki said something similar earlier this week, and Prime Minister Abe himself turned to the abductions issue as a basis for appealing to the voters. “If North Korea does not resolve this problem, it will not receive the acceptance of international society,” he told voters in Ehime and Chiba prefectures. “We will, until the day that all abductees set foot on Japanese soil and are reunited with their families, strive to resolve this issue with an ‘iron will.'”
Shiozaki’s formulation — that voting against the LDP gives comfort to Japan’s enemies — is particularly egregious, but the insertion of the abductions issue into the campaign at this late stage is a sign of LDP desperation in the face of what looks to be certain defeat and an indication of the extent to which the government has been on the defensive throughout the campaign. And I don’t think it will work.
In fact, as AEI’s Chris Griffin observes in an altogether sensible op-ed at the Washington Post, one reason why foreign policy is not a major point of contention in this election is that the differences between the LDP and the DPJ tend to be more a matter of degree than of kind. Unlike the differences between the LDP and the JSP during the cold war, when the JSP refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the US-Japan alliance and the constitutionality of the JSDF, the LDP and the DPJ largely agree on Japan’s playing a more significant global role, with differing degrees of emphasis on the US versus the UN, for example. The overlap between the LDP and the DPJ also applies to North Korea and China policy, although the DPJ may not view the abductions issue in the same light that Prime Minister Abe does (discussed in this post).
A vote against the LDP, however, is not a vote against the U.S.-Japan alliance. While many within the opposition party leadership may be skeptical of Abe’s ambitions, they have chosen to focus the their campaign on such social issues as pension reform. So a defeat for Abe does not necessarily mean a repudiation of his agenda of constitutional reform and a stronger defense. And while Abe has made a stronger alliance a priority, both parties seek a healthy relationship with the United States.
(Griffin also questions the political wisdom of the timing of Congress’s vote on the comfort women resolution, now scheduled for Monday, 30 July, even as he praises the resolution’s “sentiments.” Given that the vote will not be held until Tuesday Japan time, two days after the Upper House elections, I fail to see what the problem is. And if Japan has a problem with the vote being held so close to the elections, it has only itself to blame, given that at each step in the process Japanese officials and commentators have aggravated members of Congress, culminating in Ambassador Kato’s letter to congressional leaders.)
Nevertheless, Sunday’s election will not result in a drastic shift in policy, heightened rhetoric notwithstanding. If Abe survives, chastened, he will be ever more beholden to party leaders, not least among them former Prime Minister Mori — who took initial steps to placate the DPJ by appealing to the national interest, suggesting that there are many areas in which the DPJ and the LDP to cooperate following a DPJ victory, and that the parties should embrace a politics “for Japan.” A chastened Abe more dependent on senior party leaders will be a more cautious Abe, ever more disinclined to pursue Koizumi-style structural reform. There will be efforts to calm rural voters, perhaps a new welfare initiative or two stemming from cooperation with the DPJ, and less talk of constitution revision, with the latter even more likely to vanish from the agenda in the event of Abe’s being replaced by Fukuda or another less flashy candidate.
But it is an open question whether a cautious approach will be enough to calm the restive voters and undermine the momentum that the DPJ will take from the election in the event of an impressive victory.