All quiet on Japan’s election front

All quiet on Japan’s election front
© Getty

Elections have recently become a destabilizing force around the world from Washington to London, Paris, Berlin and now Tokyo as Japan braces for a historic test of its democratic institution later this month.

On September 28, the Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe dissolved the Diet, paving the way for a snap election on October 22. As in Western capitals, Tokyo’s upcoming general election will face familiar challenges ranging from anti-establishment populism at home to looming geopolitical crises in their vicinities. Despite such similar circumstances, Japan’s emerging political landscape points to a paradoxical climax: a more confident and extroverted country with greater commitment to international affairs regardless of the election outcome.

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In fact, Japan stands to remain largely unaffected by the same divisive forces swaying the recent Western elections. Fringe groups on both extremes of political spectrum are certainly not an exception in Japan, but they remain perennially marginalized with virtually no impact on election outcomes. Moreover, fake news, disinformation, and online spooks hardly dominate news headlines, and mainstream journalism is still alive and well.

With the West seemingly adrift with unrest and polarization, Japan steadily stays the course with Zen-like serenity and poise.

Meanwhile, tectonic shifts are in the offing in Japan’s political landscape. Japanese politics once symbolized gerontocratic inertia with the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) wielding monopolistic power virtually unchallenged since 1955. The LDP’s influence was so far-reaching throughout Japanese society that it long embraced leaderless governance which gradually lapsed into a “revolving door” of nondescript politicians.

Although proving himself a rare exception with remarkable political longevity, even Abe recently began to show signs of inertia as his support rate steadily declined since his return to power in 2012. For most voters, Abe is just another establishment leader surrounded by Japan’s nomenclaturas and apparatchiks. General ennui thus crept further as his cabinet underwent a series of scandals that even cost the career of Japan’s second female defense minister.

Abe’s recent struggle signifies the end of an era. Indeed, the LDP has largely preserved intact its Cold War-era model of gerontocratic rule underwritten by bureaucracy and corporate Japan for the last 62 years. Ironically, Abe originally emerged to the world stage in 2007 by championing “the end of the postwar regime” to challenge Japan’s traditional governance model and other postwar legacies. He has succeeded in one respect: bringing about personality to Tokyo’s otherwise bland, lackluster leadership.

The world is now familiar with Abe’s eponymous initiatives as well as his close personal ties to the world’s strongman leaders ranging from U.S. President Donald J. Trump to Russian President Vladimir Putin. His personality-driven leadership simultaneously decimated his opposition at home, virtually leaving the prime minister vulnerable only to his own problems, such as scandals.

Abe has thus redrawn Japan’s political landscape albeit with an unintended consequence: the emergence of the Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike. Koike rose suddenly from Japan’s widespread ennui surrounding the country’s club of gray-haired male elites and became Tokyo’s first female governor from the reformist conservative platform last year. She is an extraordinary personality herself.

Educated as the first non-Muslim Japanese woman at Egypt’s Cairo University, Koike returned to Japan as a celebrated financial news anchor at the height of the country’s postwar economy in the 1980s. She entered politics in the 1990s and quickly became a leading female parliamentarian, holding several key cabinet posts and befriending numerous world leaders, including Condoleezza Rice and even King Salman of Saudi Arabia. Fast-forward to 2017, Koike is now ascendant as Abe’s most redoubtable potential challenger after reorganizing Japan’s fragmented opposition under her new national party, the Party of Hope.

The emerging Abe-Koike rivalry will likely spawn a two-party system in Japan. The LDP-dominated model long suffered policy inertia and stifled policy debate. As a result, occasional transfers of power to the opposition often caused the political pendulum to swing to the extreme left as in the 2009 victory of the now-defunct Democratic Party of Japan that triggered the ongoing base issues in Okinawa.

By contrast, the budding two-party system converges on Japan’s core tenets, including as liberal democracy and the U.S.-Japan alliance, while diverging over details, such as financial policy. As result, Japan’s voters can now engage in genuine policy debate directly affecting their lives without being distracted by senseless factionalism. In short, orderly populism is therefore ascendant in Japan and stands to consolidate the country’s fledgling political system.

As a result, the difference between Abe and Koike essentially dissolves, and Japan will emerge more vigorous in its contribution to international affairs regardless of the outcome later this month. Indeed, both the LDP and the Party of Hope are committed to the revision of the Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution that bans the country’s military. As geopolitical flashpoints flare up from the Korean peninsula to the South China Sea, Japan’s full-fledged military contribution would be a much-needed addition to Washington’s regional strategy.

The prevailing rhetoric fearing the demise of Japan’s pacifism is often a hyperbole. Indeed, both Abe and Koike are peerless in Japanese politics in their commitment to the U.S.-Japan alliance and defense of the liberal international order. Moreover, both have close personal ties with their counterparts across the world’s capitals needed for working relations to address urgent geopolitical issues, such as North Korea.

A historic duel is right around the corner in Japan. The contestants are two of Japan’s most extraordinary personalities, and its grand finale will likely be dramatic. Meanwhile, Japan’s orderly populism will ensure that the world can take comfort in the assurance for Tokyo’s unwavering contribution to international affairs. As anxiety and turmoil engulf the political trenches in the West, tranquility and even optimism prevail over Japan’s election front.

Joshua W. Walker, PhD, (@drjwalk) leads the Japan work at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and is senior vice president at APCO Worldwide, a global consulting firm, where he leads the APCO Institute. Hidetoshi Azuma (@hazuma_jpn) is an APCO Institute adjunct fellow at APCO Worldwide.