Japan goes to the polls on Sunday after the prime minister, Shinzo Abe, called a snap election he hopes will give his Liberal Democratic party (LDP) a greater mandate for economic reforms. The election caught almost everyone by surprise, not least voters and the opposition parties. Surveys show that most people question the need to go to the polls again, just two years after Abe and the LDP were elected by a landslide. They have good reason to be skeptical. The LDP, along with its much smaller junior coalition partner, Komeito, now controls both houses of parliament, ending the legislative deadlock that frustrated previous administrations. After a decade that saw leaders come and go in quick succession, Abe has managed to close the revolving door to the prime minister’s office and secure some semblance of stability. That said, the resignations of two cabinet ministers in September were uncomfortable reminders of his first term as leader – for a year from autumn 2006 – when he was forced out following a string of scandals involving senior colleagues.
Abe’s approval ratings are at their lowest since he took office in December 2012, but he still had two years left in his current term to complete his economic programme and try to win over voters. Victory on Sunday would buy Abe valuable time – perhaps as many as four more years – and allow him to claim a fresh mandate for his deflation-busting economic policy.
Put crudely, this is about self-preservation for Abe. He called the election immediately after GDP data for the third quarter showed that Japan had slipped back into recession. The cabinet office said this week that the third-quarter contraction had been even deeper than previously thought. Abe has simply cut and run while he still has the chance.