Credit Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters
TOKYO — Last month, when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan dissolved Parliament and called a snap election for Oct. 22, he seemed to be making the decision from a position of strength. The opposition was in disarray, and his popularity ratings were picking up again, his hawkishness apparently vindicated by North Korea’s mounting belligerence.
In fact, the decision was a sign of weakness — of Mr. Abe’s political weakness and also, more problematically for the country, of a crisis of representativeness in Japanese politics. Whatever the outcome of the election on Sunday, a gap is growing between voters’ policy preferences and the new conservative two-party system that seems to be emerging as the liberal-left opposition is shoved aside.
There is some debate over the precise circumstances under which the executive branch may dissolve the legislature, known as the Diet, but most constitutional law scholars agree that the prime minister does not have free rein, and some criticized Mr. Abe’s move as partisan and unconstitutional. The public did not seem to appreciate the decision either: In one Kyodo poll, more than 60 percent of respondents said they found it objectionable.
Mr. Abe’s decision was seen as self-serving not least because he is perceived to have been dodging the Diet’s efforts to hold him accountable for two scandals possibly involving nepotism and an alleged cover-up concerning the activities of Japan’s Self-Defense Force in South Sudan. In June, the prime minister shut down Parliament’s ordinary session soon after pushing through a controversial anti-conspiracy law that gives broad surveillance power to the police at the expense of civil liberties.
The opposition asked to convene an extraordinary session, a right guaranteed by the Constitution when one-quarter of members in either house of the Diet so request. Mr. Abe ignored the demand for more than three months, and then, no sooner did he reconvene Parliament on Sept. 28 than he dissolved it again, by calling an election that didn’t need to be held for more than a year. Mr. Abe’s evasiveness has seemed all the more suspect because he and his allies control more than two-thirds of the seats in both houses.
In reality, however, Mr. Abe’s impressive majorities rest on rather feeble foundations. His ruling Liberal Democratic Party has garnered the support of only about one-quarter of eligible voters in recent general elections. The party has nonetheless won these races by landslides, but only thanks to Japan’s first-past-the-post system (under which two-thirds of the lower house are allocated), a divided opposition and depressed voter turnout.
Voters have never given a ringing endorsement to Mr. Abe’s “Take Back Japan” agenda, which promotes a “stronger” Japan both economically and militarily with a distinctively nationalist tone, glorifying Japan’s past. He faced major protests in 2015 after proposing new security bills to legalize collective self-defense, which were seen as seriously undermining Japan’s so-called pacifist Constitution.
The security bills were passed, but have remained divisive, as have Mr. Abe’s hopes of expanding the activities of the Self-Defense Force, among other things. According to a poll by the Yomiuri newspaper earlier this month, 42 percent of respondents disapproved of Mr. Abe’s proposal to write the existence of the force into the Constitution. (Some 35 percent supported it.)
So how does Mr. Abe stay in power when his policies are so unpopular?
The secret of his grip has been, largely, the lack of an alternative. The centrist Democratic Party, the country’s main opposition party, was discredited after displaying inexperience and incompetence during its brief, and only, stint in government, under a former name, in 2009-12.
After the nuclear accident at Fukushima in 2011 spurred renewed activism at the grassroots level, the Democratic Party formed an alliance with civil society groups and smaller leftist parties. The strategy paid off, and led to substantial gains in the 2016 upper house election. But it also came at a price, namely growing resentment among Democratic Party conservatives. And even the party’s inroads couldn’t compensate for one of the opposition’s most enduring weaknesses: its lack of a convincing leader. The conservative Seiji Maehara was elected as the Democratic Party’s new head on Sept. 1, but, perceived as a has-been, he hardly has enthused the public.
Enter Yuriko Koike, the populist and media-savvy governor of Tokyo, whose party handsomely defeated Mr. Abe’s in the Tokyo metropolitan assembly election in July. Last month, on the very day that Mr. Abe announced the dissolution of the Diet’s lower house, Ms. Koike inaugurated a new party, the Party of Hope, with great fanfare. She then promptly struck a surprise deal with Mr. Maehara under which, in essence, the Party of Hope would take over the Democratic Party. For a moment, Ms. Koike appeared to be revving up to become a direct challenger to Mr. Abe.
But as the campaign period was about to begin, Ms. Koike announced, without much explanation, that she would not be running. That decision was another victory for Mr. Abe, and another one handed to him by his own rivals: By then, Ms. Koike had, in effect, already killed the liberal-left alliance.
Ms. Koike claims to have created the Party of Hope in order to “reset Japan.” It’s a conveniently vague slogan — and reminiscent of the Liberal Democratic Party’s own, “Take Japan Back.” The Party of Hope rests on a policy platform of catchy but vague sound bites — it is against nuclear energy, overhead power cables and hay fever, among other things — some fundamentally at odds with Ms. Koike’s avowedly conservative positions.
She hardly is an ideological foe of Mr. Abe’s: She served in his first government, including as defense minister in 2007. Which is one reason that when Ms. Koike decided not to run in the upcoming Diet race, it suddenly seemed as though she had never intended to take on Mr. Abe but rather had been positioning herself to strike a deal with him after the election.
As of late last week, several polls were predicting a solid victory for the Liberal Democratic Party, saying it would win about 300 of the 465 seats in the lower house. The Party of Hope lagged far behind, and Ms. Koike’s own popularity ratings have dropped since she withdrew from the race. But no matter; the work already is done.
The Democratic Party is nearly defunct. The bulk of its former members are running under the banner of the Party of Hope, and much of its liberal wing has decided to create the Constitutional Democratic Party. The new party’s main platform is to oppose Mr. Abe head-on on a range of issues, especially, as its name indicates, on constitutional reform. That cause is popular, but the party probably is too young to make much progress in this election.
And so even before any ballot is cast on Sunday, one outcome already seems clear: The election will spell the demise of Japan’s liberal left. A conservative two-party system without real checks and balances is emerging in Japan, and the gap keeps widening between the country’s politics and the people’s preferences.