Thursday, October 30, 2014

Latest Drop in Polls Serious for Abe, but By No Means Fatal

When the approval rate in the public opinion polls for the Abe administration took a hit in for the decision to reinterpret the Japanese Constitution to allow collective self-defense, I predicted that it would soon bounce back up unless something else happened to knock it down again. And that was exactly what happened. I am less certain about the latest drop that resulted from the political financing scandals that forced the resignation of two cabinet ministers and are giving rise to LDP rumblings about a possible snap Lower House election later in the year.

When an administration makes an unpopular decision, it will see its support drop in the next public opinion poll, but it will usually recover lost ground until it makes its next unpopular decision. This cycle will be repeated until the administration reaches the end of its line and another administration takes over. This is because these unpopular decisions usually do not materially affect our daily lives, in which case it is of fleeting interest. Media attention wanes, and the polls revert to the respective trend-lines until the next issue of political consequence hits the front pages. Think, collective defense, sending troops to Iraq for peacekeeping operations, introducing the ill-named Late-term Elderly Medical Care Insurance… Of course a policy decision sometimes has visible, lasting effects, like the introduction of the consumption tax, with greater long-term political impact.

But unpopular decisions are not the only cause of an administration’s misfortunes. It can be the mishandling of a major policy issue, like the Hatoyama administration spending most of its political capital on a wild goose chase for an alternative solution to the Futenma question. It can be a series of mishaps small and not so small, like those that befell the Mori administration. Or, it can be a series of political scandals that claim the heads of multiple cabinet ministers. What these and other things in this category have in common is that they all reflect badly on governance—be it a matter of competence, legitimacy, or both—under that administration. This invites attack from the entire media and the general public regardless of their policy preferences, as well as grumbling within the parties supporting the administration. In short, the administration becomes fair game.

The latter should be fatal when it reflects a true character flaw on the part of the prime minister. On a more lethal level, my suspicion is that it still has a more long-lasting effect because it affects public perception, although it is more of a hunch than the result of a detailed historical observation. In any case, there are a few factors running counter to Prime Minister Abe’s interests. The scandals have not stopped with the two resignations. In fact, one of the replacements has been embarrassed with a couple of scandals of his own at the very beginning of his tenure. This promises that the issue will linger for much longer than Abe likes, regardless of the ultimate outcome. Moreover, the Diet is in (not so) extraordinary session, which gives the opposition a) a media-friendly venue for attacking the Abe administration and b) opportunity to stall the Abe administration’s legislative initiatives with knock-on effects on the legislative agenda well into the regular session that should begin in January, the latter generating a competence issue of its own.

The saving grace for Abe is that the poll numbers are still pretty good compared to the nadirs of the other post-Koizumi administrations. This means that the Abe administration has a long ways to fall before Abe must yield the prime minister’s office to an LDP replacement, who would then promptly seek a renewed mandate through a general election. For the same reason, I do not lend much credence to LDP whisperings around an early snap election. I believe that this is more an attempt to bluff the unprepared opposition into yielding on the legislative process than a real desire for a showdown, particularly since a snap election would be deeply upsetting to the budgetary and legislative cycles, not to mention the political uncertainty that would be generated by the presence of the final decision on the consumption tax right around such an election.

In sum, the political scandal is more damaging than the collective self-defense decision or even the national secrecy legislation, which even the Sankei group failed to give explicit support, but the Abe administration will survive with room to spare.

Afterthoughts on two things that currently complicate my thinking. First, there was the outlier rise in support for the Abe cabinet in the Asahi poll of all things. Can someone explain that?  Otherwise, I’ll just have to ignore it as a random piece of anomaly. Second, there is the upcoming December decision on the next consumption tax hike. My guess is that Abe will go through with it unless the Japanese economy stalls completely. After all, it’s only going to kick in a year from now, and the next LDP leadership election will be over by then. In any case, the LDP will obviously prefer not to contest an election right after a decision either way, nor should it want to contest one while that question is still hanging in the air.

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