Supertyphoon Lan seems to be the latest obstacle to political parties seeking to unseat Japan’s ruling coalition and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as voters went to the polls across the country on Sunday.
The typhoon was lashing large areas of Japan amid warnings of floods and landslides, all good reasons to stay home rather than venture to a polling booth.
Atrocious weather is seen favoring Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party and its allies because they have a more extensive political organization for getting out the votes than fractured late-to-the-party opposition groups.
Still, if the weather is dousing enthusiasm for the opposition, it’s only on top of opinion polls that showed the public was set to return the LDP and its allies to power, anyway.
It didn’t look that way just over a week or so ago. Abe called the snap election on October 10 to take advantage of his improving popularity numbers and disarray among the opposition after poor showings in local elections.
Then, popular Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike came charging out of the gate with a new nationwide political group, Party of Hope, to challenge the prime minister and his party.
Suddenly, Japan’s newspapers and TV chat shows were abuzz: Was change in the air? Was Abe done for? Had he misjudged like the UK’s Theresa May?
Just as quickly, the mood shifted again when Koike announced that while she was the de facto head of the Party of Hope, she would stay on as Tokyo Governor and not challenge Abe for the prime minister’s job.
This pretty much took the wind out of the Party of Hope’s sails and subsequent opinion polls last week confirmed the current coalition government could win as many as 300 of the 465 seats up for grabs.
Abe was also helped by North Korea lobbing missiles over Japan, with his strong response to the threat winning support from voters.
“I support Abe’s stance not to give in to North Korea’s pressure,” said one voter, Yoshihisa Iemori, as he cast his ballot in Tokyo. “I’m focusing on this point for the election,” the 50-year-old construction firm owner said in an AFP report.
A strong win today would raise the likelihood that Abe will win a third stint as LDP leader next September and become Japan’s longest-serving prime minister.
It would also bolster his drive to change the constitution related to the role of Japan’s military and give him a mandate to carry on with an economic strategy known as Abenomics.
Or will it?
A poll by the Reuters news agency last week of corporations showed support for the LDP and Abe, but also that a majority wanted his party to lose seats.
Many companies expressed concern that a landslide win would encourage Abe to invest his energy in revising Japan’s pacifist constitution, at the expense of economic policy, according to Reuters.
Abe staying on a prime minister will also put him back in parliament where his popularity took a nosedive earlier this year over allegations he’d been using his clout to extend favors to associates: Cronyism in most dictionaries.
The prime minister was getting an uncomfortable grilling in the Diet (parliament) over the allegations before he called the election and dissolved the Diet. That questioning will likely continue if he’s returned to office.
“Nobody that has been associated with any of these scandals is going to be kicked out, so for any opposition party coming in the same cast of villains will be available to them in budget committee sessions because you can ask any question you want in budget committee sessions,” said Michael Cucek, adjunct professor at Temple and Waseda universities in Japan.
Abe needs to be concerned about that, said Cucek.
“Consider the number of people voting for the LDP in this election. There are 106 million voters and he’ll get 17 million to 18 million or less than 17%. That’s not much of a mandate, so he needs to be careful.”
The prime minister’s Abenomics policy could also come under attack as it includes a drive to improve corporate governance in Japan.
That has taken a battering in recent weeks by revelations Kobe Steel Ltd. was falsifying manufacturing data and Nissan Motor Co. had unqualified staff signing off on vehicle inspections.
They join a long list of Japanese companies caught fiddling the books in recent years – Olympus (accounts) Toshiba (accounts), Nuclear plant operators (safety checks) to mention a few – and all on the LDP’s watch.
As the typhoon continues to hammer Japan today, the polls will close at 8 p.m. local and national broadcaster NHK will call the election based on exit polls shortly after. Official results will be available Monday morning.