In Japan, December is traditionally referred to as shiwasu, meaning a busy time when even monks have to run around. Many people, too busy to take in the daily media coverage, seem incredulous that the lower house election comes around this Sunday. Shinzo Abe's stratagem of a quick dash to the polls before year's end looks to have been well calculated.
The election started ominously for the Abe Government, with Japan officially slipping into recession just a day before the much-leaked election plan was affirmed by the Prime Minister. Neither was the pretext for the early election very convincing. Yet key opposition figures have been caught short, having too little time to get their stories straight and party line-ups in place.
One of the most disadvantaged has been Yoshimi Watanabe, in the past a promising LDP identity and son of a former trade and foreign minister. Watanabe headed the once popular Minna no Tou ('Your Party'), which advocated a mix of state reform, fiscal consolidation, inflation targeting, collective security and moderate nationalism, until he stepped down last year during an investigation into his personal finances. Your Party has formally dissolved, its prospective electoral base and some candidates and supporters lured away by the Abe phenomenon. Watanabe failed to assemble a new party ticket in time for Sunday's election so instead he is running as an independent.
The main opposition, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), remains weakened from its fractious failures in office between 2009 and 2012.
Some analysts are predicting electoral decimation for the DPJ in Tokyo constituencies, with the party as a whole offsetting losses there by winning support from failing opposition parties elsewhere. One recent poll has the DPJ improving on its current rump representation of only 62 seats to somewhere between 66 and 89 seats in the 480-seat lower house (though after the election it will be 475).
DPJ Leader Banri Kaieda still faces criticism from investors in the large Agura Bokujo cattle farm business that failed in 2011 with debts of 420 billion yen, which he repeatedly endorsed as a popular economic commentator two decades earlier. The LDP's strategy aims to weaken opposition forces further by targeting DPJ heavyweights such as Kaeida and Yukio Edano, who came to prominence during the 2011 earthquake and tsunami while serving as chief cabinet secretary.
Prominent Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, who is not running in the national diet election but heads Iishin no Tou ('Japan Innovation Party'), has had an influence in shaping a national conversation around electoral reform and reducing the number of diet members. Poll data suggests Iishin is forecast to lose between 8 to 20 of its current 42 seats. Hashimoto's standing with moderate voters was damaged by his expression of views condoning Japan's wartime 'comfort women' system, which led Yoshimi Watanabe to break from aligning politically with him.
Strikingly, the biggest loser is forecast to be Jisedai ('Party for Future Generations'), fronted by veteran neo-con and former Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, now 82 and ostensibly standing for the last time. The party was formed after the breakdown of the Hashimoto-Ishihara alliance under the Nippon Ishin no Kai ('Japan Restoration Party'). One member of Jisedai is Toshio Tamogami, fired as chief of staff of the Air Self Defence Force in 2007 for downplaying Japan's wartime aggression and a prominent identity in the radical historical-revisionist right.
Abe's own revisionist tendencies has sucked political air from nationalist minor party politicians, while his economic reform agenda and optimistic message attracts some swinging voters tired of the past politics of stagnation. Doubts about the massive quantitative-easing component of Abenomics abound, but few voters wish for disruption of the momentum of his leadership on economic recovery.
In short, 'third force' identities have each become personally compromised and the DPJ brand remains badly tarnished from the disorder of its last term in office. No coherent opposition narrative that weaves together the threads of unease about nuclear power, Abe's foreign policy and the distributional impacts of Abenomics has been proffered from the Left.
Going into the election, LDP insiders were speaking of a loss of 20-25 of the 293 seats that their members now account for. Yet the polls suggest that the LDP will pick up seats, possibly up to 25. The LDP-Komeito coalition has a good prospect of holding a two-thirds majority in the lower house. This will allow the Government to enact any bill rejected by the House of Councillors by gaining a two-thirds majority on a second House of Representatives vote. The LDP currently relies on Komeito to secure a majority in the upper house.
The LDP target number to watch on Sunday is 317: it would allow Abe to push through more extensive legislation for the exercise of collective security, regardless of the concerns of its more dovish Komeito partner.
Voter turn-out is expected to be low, and with another cold front from Siberia forecast for this weekend, many people may stay in and rest up for the final round of bonenkai (year end parties) and write their nengajo (New year greeting cards). In the Japanese zodiac, 2015 figures as a year of the sheep, not an auspicious sign for those hoping that an Abe-led LDP in full control of the diet will bring on bold economic reforms.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Eric Dan.