Japan's Political Shakeup

How the Snap Elections Are Changing the Party Landscape

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, left, and Yuriko Koike at a debate in Tokyo, October 2017. Kim Kyung Hoon / Reuters

On September 28, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe dissolved the lower house of the Japanese Diet and called a snap election for October 22. The move was a calculated gamble to seize on the modest recovery in Abe’s approval ratings that has accompanied increased tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Abe’s hope is that the Japanese electorate will return his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to office without costing him the two-thirds supermajority that he currently holds with a coalition partner, the Komeito Party—a possibility that seemed remote earlier this summer, when the Abe government’s approval ratings sank to only 32.5 percent, their lowest point ever.

Abe’s government has suffered in the polls in recent months due to a string of influence-peddling scandals as well as a number of political gaffes by key aides, including the former defense minister and Abe protégé Tomomi Inada. Since the low point in July, however, Abe has recovered some popularity through a significant reshuffle of his cabinet while benefitting from a spike in tensions with North Korea, which over the past two months launched two ballistic missile tests over Japanese territory and detonated a hydrogen bomb. The prime minister’s approval ratings now sit around 41 percent. 

But although Abe’s ruling LDP remains the favorite to win the election later this month, Japanese politics are changing. First was the halfhearted attempt by the long-struggling Democratic Party (DP)—the main opposition to the LDP—to rebrand itself by shaking up its leadership. In early September, former Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara was elected to take over as DP leader following the resignation of the previous leader in July. Maehara, a conservative-leaning figure, had vowed to turn the corner for the struggling party, whose popularity had plummeted despite significant public disenchantment with the Abe government. Maehara divided opinion within the DP by critiquing the party’s reluctant electoral cooperation with Japan’s Communist Party. In early August, polls indicated that only seven percent of Japanese voters supported

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