Snap election gamble looks set to pay off for Japan's Abe

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Story highlights

  • Voter turnout could drop below 50% for first time in postwar history
  • Lack of credible opposition and voter apathy expected to result in Abe victory

(CNN)If current opinion polls are to be believed, this Sunday voters in Japan will return Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to office with an increased majority, putting the 63-year-old conservative on track to become the longest-serving leader in the country's post-war history.

An election victory would also provide Abe with what may be his best, and possibly last, chance to secure the majority needed to begin the process of revising Japan's pacifist constitution.
Abe, a deeply divisive and unpopular figure within many parts of Japan, has so far struggled to engage voters beyond his core support. In the weeks preceding the election, approval ratings for Abe's Liberal Democrat Party (LDP) have stood at a mere 37%, a low bar even by Japanese standards, where enthusiasm for political parties remains apathetic at best.
    Yet a combination of factors, not least the fragmentation of the country's major opposition party, as well as the looming specter of North Korea, have allowed Abe to steer a course toward victory, with his ruling coalition projected to win 300 seats or more from the total of 465 up for grabs.
    A man holds an electoral leaflet urging votes for Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during an election campaign in Saitama, October 18.

    The demise of a credible opposition

    When Abe called the snap election in September it was a strategic gamble.
    On one hand, support for his hard line against North Korea was high, while on the other hand, he remained mired in two long-running corruption scandals that threatened to overshadow his tenure.
    In announcing the election, Abe promised to resign as prime minister if his party failed to win a majority.
    Abe's apparently tenuous grip on power was further underscored by the sudden and unexpected emergence of a new national political party -- led by the popular Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike -- a development that left many wondering if a genuine political shake-up was underway.
    Several weeks on, and talk of Koike's "Party of Hope" as a viable alternative to Abe's ruling coalition has all but fizzled out, with the party lagging far behind in the polls.
    Koike, a former LDP defense minister and protege of Abe's, had initially positioned herself as the "savior that Japan was waiting for," said Koichi Nakano, Professor of Political Science at Sophia University.
    "But soon after, people began to realize that her party was really lacking in substance," he added.
    Koike's decision not to run and instead stay on as Tokyo governor also damaged the party, leaving it with a figurehead but not a viable prime ministerial candidate.
    "In the best case scenario they are hoping to gain as many seats as possible and to be a player after the election," said Nakano.
    To compound matters, the rise of Koike's new party has been at the expense of the Democratic Party (DP) -- the country's foremost opposition.
    After Koike announced her plans to form a new party, the DP disbanded, with the majority of the party's candidates coming out in support of Koike.
    Analysts, however, point out that in merging the parties under the guise of Koike's "reform conservatism" the two groups have alienated voters searching for a more genuine liberal alternative.
    The Party of Hope's Yuriko Koike had once seemed like a credible alternative to Abe but she decided not to run.
    "Koike's biggest achievement so far is basically to destroy the opposition that was building around the Democratic Party," added Nakano.
    Meanwhile, former members of the liberal wing of the DP have formed a splinter group of their own, the Constitutional Democratic Party in Japan (CDJP).
    "The CDJP is now doing quite well and people are responding quite positively to their cause," said Nakano. "But even if they win every seat they contest, it is still only a slither compared to the ruling collation."
    Neither Koike's party or the CDJP are fielding enough candidates to form an outright majority.

    'Same old, same old'

    The lack of a credible alternative to the status quo has not translated in an upsurge in support for the ruling coalition, however.
    At the last election in 2012 voter turnout was a mere 52%. According to analysts, this election could see turnout fall below the 50% mark for the first time in Japan's postwar history.
    "People are just not interested," said Jeff Kingston, Director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan.
    "The fact that it seems to be the same old, same old, and there is no choice other than the LDP... The main opposition has imploded. So, nobody is ready for the election. Nobody really wanted this election. Abe is going to win and everybody knows it's over."
    A recent study by Pew appears to support this general sense of apathy, revealing that only 50% of the Japanese public are "satisfied with the way democracy is working" in their country.
    A disaffected electorate points to wider more systemic issues, such as voter mobilization, said Kingston. "The new parties have very little in the way of national networks. It's comparable to David and Goliath in that sense," he added.
    The LDP can rely on loyal, well-established supporter networks throughout the country, so in an election where just 50% of the population turnout to vote, the LDP and its coalition partner, the centrist Komeito, require only 25% of the eligible vote to win, explained Kingston. "It's an unfair fight," he added.

    What's at stake?

    The election has been dominated by two issues: Tax and North Korea.
    Abe, who was elected in a landslide victory in 2012 with the promise of rejuvenating the country's flagging economy, is currently presiding over an unemployment rate of around 3% -- relatively low by western standards -- and modest growth.
    However, his much-heralded economic policy, dubbed "Abenomics," has so far failed to meet the high expectations set during the previous election and he has struggled to ease stagnation.
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    Lower income families especially are now feeling the pinch. In response, Abe has promised that a forthcoming increase in sales tax, from 8% to 10%, will be used to fund childcare, social care for the country's rapidly aging population and various education reforms.
    The Party of Hope has so far been unable to outline a detailed tax policy of its own, campaigning instead in more general terms and promising to provide additional assistance to working families through a combination of higher company tax and increased private investment.

    The North Korean crisis

    But it's the continued and very real security threat posed by Pyongyang's expanding missile program that has dominated the campaign.
    Described by Abe as a "national crisis," Japan has seen two North Korean ballistic missiles fly over the northern island of Hokkaido in recent months, causing fear among the general population, and renewing debate over Japan's ability to defend itself in the face of increased military aggression.
    Analysts point out that the vast majority of voters share Abe's concerns.
    "North Korea presents a very challenging situation for Tokyo," said Kiichi Fujiwara, professor of International Politics at the University of Tokyo. Many voters are looking for "security," he added.
    What this means long term remains unknown, but it's clear that an improved majority would lay the ground work for Abe to begin the process of changing the country's pacifist constitution, possibly by amending article 9, that acknowledges the existence of an organized defense force.
    Drafted by the US in the wake of Japan's defeat in the Second World War, the constitution prevents Japan from maintaining armed forces.
    Currently, the Japanese military is known as the Self-Defense Forces, but previously, Abe has said there is a contradiction between the constitution and the existence of the SDF.
    "I believe that we must establish the status of the SDF explicitly in the constitution during our generation's lifetime and leave no room for contending the SDF could be unconstitutional," said Abe in May this year. "I strongly wish to make 2020 the year that the reborn Japan will make a new start."
    In order to revise the constitution, Abe needs a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Japanese parliament as well as a majority in a national referendum.
    Koike, a former LDP defense minister, is seen as largely in favor of shoring up Japan's military deterrence.
    "After the election, if indeed he has a massive majority and that combined with party support for the revision of the constitution, and even if elements of the public remain strongly opposed, he may still be able get his way," said Professor Nakano, citing the LDP's considerable resources and media reach.
    Estimates in recent years have placed support for revising the constitution at around 50% of the electorate.
    "There are very big and important issues (at this election)," added Nakano. "But the collapse, or the failure of the system to provide any alternative (opposition voice) is very dangerous for Japanese democracy."