TOKYO — Japanese voters went to the polls on Sunday – well, about half of them did anyway. Turnout was a record low of 52 percent, a sign both that many people did not believe there was a need for a snap parliamentary election now, and that they do not have great affection for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his policies.
Nevertheless, Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, together with their coalition partner the Komeito, kept their two-thirds majority in the House of Representatives and have pledged to carry on doing what they’ve been doing.
The election may not have generated huge excitement or change in Japan, but here are three reasons why the result matters for the United States:
1. Abe is strong
Say what you will about Abe (and as many Japanese say they disapprove of the Abe and his cabinet as say they approve), he is one of the most powerful prime ministers in recent Japanese history.
“The reason Abe is popular is because he’s a leader,” Jesper Koll, managing director of research at J.P. Morgan in Tokyo, told The Washington Post last week. “He makes decisions.”
Now in his second stint as prime minister – the first one ended after only a year in 2007, the result of health problems – Abe seems to have the kind of staying power that Japan has been sorely lacking in recent history. He is Japan’s 17th prime minister in 25 years, but with Sunday’s election result, he has a real prospect of spending another four years in office, taking his term to six. That gives him time to try to make progress on difficult challenges like the economy and structural reforms, analysts say, and it will usher in a period of stability.
From a U.S. perspective, Abe is a known quantity and a reliable partner who’s – mostly – saying all the right things. He has voiced a determination to ease some of the postwar constraints on Japan’s military, which would enable it to come to the U.S.’s defense if its ally was under attack. Washington, wary of a strengthening China, is happy about this evolution.
Indeed, the White House welcomed Abe’s reelection.
“We appreciate Prime Minister Abe’s strong leadership on a wide range of regional and global issues, from typhoon relief in the Philippines, to the Ebola response, to the international fight against ISIL,” Josh Earnest, a spokesman for President Obama, said in a statement Sunday, using an acronym for the Islamic State group.
“The United States looks forward to deepening our close alliance cooperation with the government and people of Japan to promote global and regional security and prosperity, and bilateral cooperation on defense guidelines revision, TPP and maritime security,” Earnest said.
2. Maybe that trade deal will get done
Progress on the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal involving the United States and 11 other Pacific Rim nations has ground to a halt, largely because of a dispute with Japan over agricultural tariffs. One politician here described Mike Froman, the American negotiator, and Akira Amari, his Japanese counterpart, as being “like Tom and Jerry, always fighting with each other”.
If he wants to move forward with the agreement, Izumi Devalier, an economist at HSBC, wrote in a research note, “Prime Minster Abe will need to expend considerable political capital overcoming strongly-entrenched vested interests”.
But maybe he will be willing to take on those vested interests now that he has a new mandate and the U.S. Senate is about to have a more trade-friendly leadership. Republicans, who have broadly supported the TPP deal, are considered more likely to give the Obama administration “fast track authority” – meaning that the deal, once agreed, could not be changed by Congress before it is approved.
“If Congress moves towards [fast track authority], that will make it possible for Abe to show his final cards for compromising on TPP,” said Gerald Curtis, an esteemed Japan expert who teaches at Columbia University. “There’s no way Japan is going to show its hand if there’s no way that Congress is going to fast track it."
3. That Okinawa base problem? Just got worse.
That was the good news for the U.S. Here’s the bad news: The LDP fared well everywhere except Okinawa, where it bombed, to use the political jargon.
All four LDP candidates running in Okinawa, the sub-tropical island chain south of the mainland, were beaten in their constituency races in Sunday’s election. (However, due to Japan’s somewhat complicated proportional representation system, all won parliamentary seats through the LDP list.)
The four LDP candidates had said they supported relocating the Marine Corps air station currently located at Futenma, a prime patch of land in the middle of the most heavily populated part of the main island, to a more remote location at Henoko, further north.
The overwhelming majority of Okinawans, fed up with being home to the vast majority of Japan’s noisy and (they say) dangerous American military bases, want the air station moved out of their prefecture.
Abe said the Okinawa election results were “unfortunate” and that he would “reflect deeply upon them." "The relocation to Henoko is the only option. We'd like to move forward with the plan while providing a sufficient explanation," he said.
The slap in the face for the LDP comes just a month after an anti-base candidate trounced the ruling party-backed incumbent in Okinawa’s gubernatorial race. The winner in that race, Takeshi Onaga, has vowed to stop a new base from being built at Henoko.
Although analysts are highly doubtful that Onaga will be able to make good on that promise, his victory, combined with the LDP drubbing in Okinawa and the presence of an anti-base mayor in the area that includes Henoko, mean that building the new base is going to be politically tricky.
The victorious politicians in Okinawa are all making clear that Tokyo and Washington will be directly going against Okinawans’ wishes, as expressed at the ballot box, if they go ahead with the new base at Henoko.
“LDP loss in Okinawa unlikely to change policy, but it sustains anti-base momentum resumed by Gov Onaga,” tweeted James Schoff, a Japan expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “A long negotiation process begins."