Sunday, July 21, 2013

Abe's underwhelming victory

Abe Shinzō's LDP-led coalition with Komeitō got its wish Sunday, winning enough seats to retake control of the House of Councillors for the government and ending the "twisted" Diet for at least the next three years. With five seats still undecided, the LDP and Kōmeitō have secured 134 seats, comfortably over the majority threshold of 122 seats.

But it is difficult to declare Sunday's results an strong mandate for Abe and his program.

First, the LDP fell short of winning an outright majority. The LDP is once again the largest party in the HOC, but it will still need to secure the votes of Kōmeitō to pass legislation in the upper chamber. It is unclear what threats Kōmeitō can wield to modify the government's behavior — I doubt whether it can credibly threaten to leave the coalition — but since they wield the deciding votes in the HOC, they will be in a position to influence the government's agenda, which will likely have consequences for nuclear energy and constitution revision. One could argue that Kōmeitō was the real winner on Sunday.

Second, the pro-revision parties fell short of a supermajority. The pro-constitution revision parties needed to win at least 162 seats to be in a position to pass constitutional amendments in the HOC. Given that the pro-revision parties don't even share the same vision for the constitution, the road to revision is no less steep today than it was before the HOC election. That doesn't mean Abe won't try to cobble together some kind of revisionist alliance in the HOC, but I think the pattern I outlined in May will hold:
At the very least, we're probably seeing the emergence of what will likely be a persistent pattern should Abe remain in power. Abe and his lieutenants will talk about the need to revise the constitution, Kōmeitō will express its unease about revision, what's left of the left wing will sound the alarm, public opinion polls will reveal skepticism about revision, LDP grandees will suggest backing down...and rinse and repeat.
It is difficult to view the HOC election as public endorsement for a shift to the right.

Instead, we should view the HOC election as a sign that the Japanese political system is not "stable" or healthy. There is an emerging narrative that because the Abe government looks durable, the Japanese political system has achieved some stability after years of turmoil and ineffectual governments.  Abe may well be in a position to last, although we won't really know until he actually has to make a controversial decision (about, say, TPP or nuclear power or the consumption tax). But the election returns suggest that these will be trying years for Japanese democracy. The DPJ has more or less imploded, and seemed to spend more time during the campaign fighting amongst itself than against the government. The Communists soaked up anti-Abe protest votes and won eight seats, including three district seats, but the ability to win protest votes does not necessarily make for an effective opposition party. As Michael Cucek noted before the election, none of the opposition parties has anything constructive to say about the problems facing Japan. Abenomics is winning public support at least in part because it's the only policy program on offer. Kōmeitō is basically left being the opposition-in-government. I think there are votes for a center-left program, but no party or leader has articulated one in simple, easily understood terms. Whether a coherent, effective large party can emerge from the DPJ's wreckage is one of the most important questions in Japanese politics in the years to come.

Finally, policy challenges remain. With control of both houses, Abe has no excuses. He cannot hide behind the "twisted Diet" any longer. He is going to have to deliver results and make decisions with the potential to trigger major public opposition. The media, of course, will be waiting to pounce at the first sign that the government is slipping — to say nothing of Abe's rivals within the LDP. The public is still opposed to nuclear restarts and is still opposed to raising the consumption tax next year. While the public as a whole supports Japanese participation in TPP, the LDP still includes an unwieldy mix of representatives from across the country, suggesting the possibility of a postal privatization-like confrontation between the urban and rural wings of the party.

In short, the HOC election was not nearly as transformative as it may seem. By failing to win an independent majority in the HOC, the LDP will continue to depend on Komeitō to pass legislation. But by winning a majority for the coalition, Abe will now be expected to use his political power to follow through on his pledge to revitalize Japan's economy — with the public, the media, and rivals within the LDP ready to turn on him should he falter.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Will nuclear restarts derail Abe? (Probably not.)

Say what you will about the LDP, but the party has been fairly open about its preference for nuclear energy and restarting Japan's idled reactors as soon as possible.

The party may be about to get its wish.

On July 8th, four regional power companies will apply to the Nuclear Regulation Authority to begin compulsory inspections as a first step towards restarting their reactors. It will be months before the inspections will be concluded and plants reopened, but Monday appears to mark the beginning of the reintroduction of nuclear energy to Japan's energy mix in a significant way.

The NRA is central to the LDP's and Abe's soft-pedaling of the nuclear issue. Lest the Abe government be faced with this...

Source: Asahi Shimbun, Asia & Japan Watch, 30 June 2012

the LDP and the prime minister have repeatedly said that they will defer to the judgment of the authority when it comes to restarting reactors, including the pledge in the party's manifesto last year and again this year.

As long as the authority was not yet reviewing applications to restart reactors, deferring to the authority was an easy position to take. But now both the authority and the Abe government will be tested. For the NRA, it will be tested to show its independence from political decision makers, who have said they will respect the authority's decisions but have made no secret in wanting reactors put back online as soon as possible. For Abe, the pledge to defer to the NRA's judgment will be equally tested, especially if the authority rules against fast restarts for some reactors.

Perhaps the best outcome for both parties would be for some reactors to be restarted and others rejected for the time being, thereby allowing Abe to show his willingness to respect the NRA's decisions while still pocketing the political benefits of less dependence on imported energy. It might also defuse some of the political opposition — preventing demonstrations like those seen above, for example — by showing that the government really did defer to the regulators. It may also defuse some of the opposition from Komeito, the LDP's coalition partner. The latest Asahi polling, discussed here, shows that the public is still opposed to restarts by a considerable margin (29% in favor, 53% opposed), but the issue is a second-tier issue and it is by no means certain that Abe would face the kind of demonstrations his predecessors faced, especially if Abe can pass the buck for restarts to the NRA.

Meanwhile, by rejecting some applications for early restarts, the NRA could show its independence and demonstrate that it actually has some regulatory clout.

Mind you, it is beyond my expertise to say what the inspections actually will produce. (This NHK article [jp] has a decent rundown of the new regulations upon which inspections will be based.) But it does seem that, while the public is firmly opposed to restarts, there is a way for Abe to avoid taking a serious political blow from the nuclear question.

Pinpointing public support for Abenomics

With the upper house election campaign in full swing — Michael Cucek has the campaign numbers breakdown here — there is no shortage of public opinion polling to wade through. Because the outcome of the election is more or less a foregone conclusion, not much of it is very interesting.

However, it is still worth looking at if only to understand how the public is evaluating Abe's performance and what their priorities are as the campaign trucks fan out across the country.

I've been paying particular attention to several questions in Asahi's national tracking poll pertaining to public assessment of Abe's economic policies. In addition to tracking the headline approval rating, I've been looking at one question which asks respondents to assess whether they approve of his economic policies (previously whether they believe Abenomics holds promise for growth), and another which asks whether they believe Abe's policies are linked to increases in wages and employment.

In the latest Asahi poll (jp), conducted a week after the previous one, public support for Abe's economic policies improved slightly, rising to 55% approval from 51%, and, more importantly, disapproval fell from 31% to 23%.

Source: Asahi Shimbun
Abe also saw a slight shift in his favor when it comes to whether the public believes his policies are connected to improvements in wages and employment.

Source: Asahi Shimbun
Finally, this latest poll introduced a new question, asking respondents which policy they would like to see debated more during the upper house election campaign. The poll is consistent with those dating back years: the public is most interested in economic growth and social security, followed by issues like the consumption tax and energy, and finally TPP, foreign policy, and the constitution. 

Source: Asahi Shimbun, 7 July 2013
The fluctuations in support for Abenomics a few points one way or another probably don't mean much in the scheme of things, not least because last week's and this week's polls have had relatively small sample sizes compared to polls conducted earlier in the year. After getting responses from between 1500 and 2000 households for most of the year, the last two polls have had fewer than 1100 respondents (1039 last week and 1084 this week). By comparison, the June 11th poll that showed a twelve-point drop in support for Abe's economic policies had 1781 respondents. With approximately 51.8 million households in Japan, 1084 respondents gives us a margin of error of ± 3% at 95% confidence.

Thankfully, Yomiuri poll (jp) in late June found nearly identical results with more respondents (1821) when it asked whether respondents approved or disapproved of Abenomics: 54% approval, 31% disapproval.

Thus we can say with a reasonable amount of confidence that public support for Abenomics remains at just above 50%.

That, ultimately, is the most important number to watch. Because public support for the Abe cabinet rests so much on public support for its policies in the areas that matter most to Japanese citizens, i.e. the health of the economy, as long as the public supports Abenomics, they will support Abe. At the same time, if and when the public turns against Abenomics, Abe will be in trouble to the extent that growing unpopularity will create space for critics within his own party to undermine his program.

At which point Abe will be pressed to show just how much he believes in the slogan he has lifted from Margaret Thatcher (jp): There Is No Alternative.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Public support for Abenomics cools slightly, but the LDP will win anyway

With the campaign for the July 21st upper house election set to begin officially on Thursday, the Asahi Shimbun has released the results of its latest opinion polling on the Abe government.

The poll contains good news and bad news for Abe Shinzō.

The good news for the PM is that there remains no doubt that the LDP will win big. When asked who they will vote for in proportional representation voting — which elects forty-eight legislators from national lists — 44% said LDP, 7% each for the DPJ, JRP, and Your Party, Communists 5%, Komeito 4%, Socialists 3%, and People's Life 1%. Another 19% said they were still undecided. If we assume that the undecideds will break along the same lines as the decideds and that approximately 54 million votes will be cast in proportional balloting (roughly the number of votes cast in the 2007 and 2010 elections), the LDP will win twenty-nine seats, the DPJ, JRP, and YP four seats each, the JCP three seats, and Komeito and the Socialists two seats each.1

To reach the UH majority threshold of 122 seats, the LDP will need to win forty-two of seventy-three district seats, which, given the above figures, should probably be doable. The DPJ happens to be defending forty-two seats, the beneficiaries of its 2007 victory over the Abe-led LDP. The party recognizes it will come nowhere close to that total and will run no more than a single candidate in each district. Reaching the two-thirds threshold of 162 seats, necessary for constitution revision, is probably out of reach, certainly for the LDP by itself since it would fall short even if it were to win all seventy-three district seats.

The bad news is that the Abe government's headline approval rating continues to head the wrong direction. His approval rating fell another four points, to 54%.

More significantly, the Japanese public is no more enthusiastic about Abenomics than it was in early June. In response to the question whether they approve of Abe's economic policies, 50% said yes, while 31% said no, virtually identical to last month. (Although this time the poll asked whether respondents approve or disapprove, whereas earlier polls asked whether they thought Abe's policies were promising for growth.) Meanwhile, there was a slight uptick in the percentage of respondents who did not believe that Abe's policies are linked to higher wages and employment, 48% compared to 32% who believe they are.

Meanwhile, when it comes to two of the biggest questions facing the Abe government — whether to restart nuclear reactors and whether to raise the consumption tax rate on schedule in April 2014 — the public remains firmly opposed to both. Only 29% support restarting the reactors, with 53% opposed, a slight decrease from last month, but without a corresponding increase in support. 51% of respondents said they opposed raising the consumption tax, with 37% in favor. The public also remains opposed to revising Article 96 of the constitution, with 47% opposed and 34% in favor.

There are a couple bright spots for Abe — nearly 50% approval of foreign and security policies, 50% in favor of Japanese participation in TPP —but on the whole the impression is that public excitement about Abenomics has cooled. The public will give Abe a majority in the Upper House this month, but the days of unbridled enthusiasm about the Abe program have passed. Perhaps that shouldn't be too surprising, given that recent economic gains may not have reached Japanese households yet. Abe's overall support numbers may get a bump from the election, but it is increasingly clear that the important number to watch are public attitudes to Abenomics, which seem to determine the strength of Abe's public support.

1 PR seats are apportioned using the D'Hondt method. I made these estimations using this calculator.