In a surprise move on Tuesday night, Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe, only half-way through his four year term of office, announced that an early election would be held before the end of the year. The likely date is 14 December, less than four weeks away. He says he is seeking a renewed mandate for his economic policies (popularly known as “Abenomics”), including the postponement for 18 months of a planned increase in the consumption tax.

As always, the big issue in Japan is the economy, once seen as the wave of the future but chronically underperforming now for 20 years or more. Abe has bold plans, but results so far have been disappointing and the country officially slipped back into recession on Monday.

Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (a generally conservative party, despite its name) was elected in 2012 with a substantial majority – 294 of the 480 seats in the lower house, plus another 31 for its junior partner, the New Komeito Party. It’s hard to imagine that he can improve much on that, or that a few seats more or less will make any difference to the implementationof his policies.

But victory now would keep him in office for another four years. If Abe expects his policies to produce economic pain over the next couple of years, avoiding a 2016 election is a big plus. The risk, however, is that voters will realise what’s going on and decide they don’t want to give him a blank cheque.

In reality, though, they don’t have much alternative. The opposition Democratic Party of Japan (broadly centrist), elected with high hopes in 2009, fell apart once in office and has yet to recover: it’s recently been languishing in single digits in the opinion polls. The anti-government vote is split between it, the right-wing nationalist Innovation Party (formerly Restoration), the Communists and various smaller parties.

Moreover, even if people don’t vote for the LDP in great numbers, the electoral system, badly malapportioned, is quite capable of keeping it in power anyway. In 2012 it won a majority with only 27.8% of the vote, and in last year’s Senate election it won 47 of the 73 seats on offer with 42.7%.

A year ago the Japanese Supreme Court held that the 2012 election was unconstitutional, but it declined – as it has with previous such decisions – to invalidate the results. Subsequent reforms have improved matters a little, but it’s still estimated that some votes are worth twice as much as others. Following the prime minister’s announcement, a group of lawyers filed suit to try to stop the election.

There’s not much risk of that happening, but if the court gets really exasperated with the government’s failure to act it’s possible that it might subsequently overturn some or all of the results, creating a constitutional minefield. But electoral reform is difficult, since, as I said last year, “no-one really wants to tell rural voters that they are not as special as they think they are.”

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