Shinzo Abe

The ‘rural revolt’ in Japan shrouded by Shinzo Abe’s party leadership win

Prime minister appeared victorious after his re-election, but some say the vote exposed discontent in the prefectures

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 September, 2018, 1:51pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 September, 2018, 10:09pm

Shinzo Abe’s victory in Thursday’s election for the president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party was, on the surface, comfortable. Securing a third three-year term, Abe took 553 of the 807 votes and managed to look both grateful to his supporters and modest at the result as he led the traditional “banzai” cheer after his win was announced.

But behind the smiles there may be a hint of discontent – both within the party that has dominated Japanese politics for half-a-century and the public – at his failure to win over some members of prefectural chapters.

Abe won 80 per cent of support from politicians in the two houses of the Diet, eclipsing those who voted for Shigeru Ishiba, the former defence minister who was his only challenger.

But the prime minister, who turned 63 on Friday, only took a mere 55 per cent of the vote at the prefectural level – a sharp contrast to the 70 per cent-plus he hoped for before the vote. In 10 of the 47 prefectures, Ishiba was ahead of Abe.

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“He’s obviously not very popular in the provinces as he did even worse the last time he was elected head of the party,” said Jun Okumura, a political analyst at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs. “Abe’s problem is that he’s just not much of a ‘retail politician’. He’s never been very good at shaking hands, kissing babies and sitting down with the locals in the shires to discuss policies over a glass or two of sake. But Ishiba is good at that.”

Okumura said Abe’s policies or image as an urban political blue blood were not to blame for his relatively poor showing at the prefectural level. A more important factor would be the two scandals that have dogged his administration for the last year and reappeared on Friday, when another vice-minister at the education ministry quit after two other senior officials were indicted and arrested over the bribery cases.

Although the prime minister appears to have finally shaken off suggestions he influenced ministry decisions to favour old friends, party members clearly have long memories.

“My sense is that LDP politicians at the regional level have been getting an earful from the public, the people at the grass roots level,” he said. “And he has not had the benefit of a Fox News to turn the attention elsewhere or erase these claims.”

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In an interview with the Asahi newspaper, one LDP executive described the result as “a revolt from the local regions” while another said the figures do not bode well for the party as it begins the countdown to the election of the Upper House of the Diet next summer.

The leaders of Japan’s opposition parties clearly sense blood in the water, with Kazuo Shii, head of the Japanese Communist Party, saying the result is testimony to the growing chorus of criticism against the Abe administration.

More obliquely, Yuichiro Tamaki, head of the Democratic Party for the People, told reporters: “My impression is that Mr Ishiba did quite well.”

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Okumura said the LDP is not in a crisis yet, however, but that is mainly because the opposition appears so fragmented and shambolic and not because the LDP performed well.

“The opposition can’t get their act together and now he has been re-elected, the LDP does not have to worry about Abe’s popularity any more,” he said. “As long as the economy does not collapse and no more scandals come to light a couple of months before the next election, the LDP should be able to continue in power after Abe completes his term.”