Shinzo Abe did not seem jubilant, or even terribly relieved.
Instead, when Japan’s prime minister spoke on television late on Sunday evening, a couple of hours after exit polls suggested that he had secured another four years at the helm of the world’s third-largest economy, his tone was subdued.
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“We have received an endorsement for the last two years of the Abe administration,” he said. “But we must not be conceited.”
A little humility was probably in order. When Mr Abe’s Liberal Democratic party swept to power two years ago, it was with about 1.7m fewer votes in single-member districts than it had won in 2009, when it came up against a resurgent Democratic party. This time, the LDP won even less popular support than it had in 2012, as its voting share looked set to remain stable while turnout dropped to a new record low of about 52 per cent, from 59.3 per cent last time.
After all the rigmarole of a snap election likely to have cost about Y60bn ($505m), the LDP ended up about where it started, with 290 seats in the 475-seat lower house. Together with its coalition partner, Komeito, it has retained the two-thirds majority needed to override the upper house, where opposition parties are stronger.
“Mr Abe has passed a midterm examination,” said Harukata Takenaka, a professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. “The final test is yet to come.”
The prime minister had billed the poll as a referendum on his sweeping economic programme, also known as “Abenomics”, which is aimed at ridding Japan of deflation.
Mr Abe is from a wealthy family so he has no idea that ordinary people are feeling bullied. Only big companies and people who own stocks have benefited from ‘Abenomics.’ It is unfair
– Yukio Kanno, 73
Yet even among the people who went out to vote on an unusually cold December day — Tokyo saw its first winter snowfall about three weeks earlier than average — there was broad ambivalence towards the big stimulus efforts. According to exit polls carried out by NHK, the national broadcaster, there was a fairly even split between people who said they valued “Abenomics” (52 per cent) and those who said they did not (46 per cent).
Despite a lot of talk from Mr Abe that his reflationary drive is “the only way” for Japan, large swaths of voters have yet to experience benefits through higher wages. For many, the most obvious effect remains the collapse in the yen, which has boosted companies’ profits but pushed up people’s cost of living — a squeeze exacerbated by April’s increase in the consumption tax from 5 per cent to 8 per cent.
“Mr Abe is from a wealthy family so he has no idea that ordinary people are feeling bullied,” said Yukio Kanno, a 73 year-old pensioner from the western Tokyo district of Matsudo, who cast a vote for the centre-right Japan Innovation Party, formed from a split of other minority groups just three months ago. “Only big companies and people who own stocks have benefited from ‘Abenomics.’ It is unfair.”
Meanwhile, many voters say they are worried that Mr Abe may use an extended mandate not to push for longer-term structural reforms to boost Japan’s competitiveness — the so-called “third arrow” of Abenomics — but to pursue matters closer to his heart, such as redrafting the country’s pacifist constitution.
Rie Yamanaka, a 32 year-old tax accountant who backed the JIP in her central-Tokyo district of Koto on Sunday morning, said that she welcomes Mr Abe’s basic ideas to perk up the economy, but is “scared” by his assertive foreign policy, which has strained Japan’s relations with China and South Korea.
“During the last election campaign, there was not much talk about revising the constitution,” she said, alluding to Mr Abe’s move earlier this year to loosen rules on how Japan’s self-defence forces can be deployed to support allies. “But once the LDP got an overwhelming number of seats, Mr Abe’s behaviour changed. It makes me wonder if the party is really OK.”
The prime minister gave a glimpse of these broader interests on Sunday evening, when he argued that the election had not been merely about Abenomics but was a vote on “which party should govern.”
Reworking Japan’s constitution was the LDP’s “long-held wish,” he said. Over the next few years, he would “work towards deepening public understanding on constitutional revision.”
Additional reporting by Kana Inagaki
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