October 23 2017, 18:00 JST

Staying on the reflationary policy mix

For a printable version of the report, please click here.

Shinzo Abe wins the election thanks to Yuriko Koike

The ruling coalition in Japan won a clear victory in the Lower House election held on October 22. Prime Minister Abe’s party, Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) won 284 seats out of the total of 465 seats, giving the party full control of the Lower House. With its junior coalition partner, Komei, the ruling coalition now controls 313 seats, above the supermajority (2/3) line of 310 seats.

It is somewhat uncertain to whom the victory should be credited to. Various polls taken in October showed a larger percentage of respondents voicing their disapproval for the Prime Minister (PM) Shinzo Abe. A trimmed average measure of 5 media polls we follow showed 44.7% disapproval rate for the Abe cabinet, while only 38% approved. In our view, if anybody should be responsible for the victory, it is Yuriko Koike, the Governor of Tokyo, who managed to destroy the leading opposition party, Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), four weeks before the election day. On September 28, the leader of DPJ, Seiji Maehara, announced that he is merging DPJ with the Party of Hope (Hope), a party Ms. Koike established on September 25. However, DPJ parliamentarians found out that Ms. Koike intended to accept only those who pledged to agree on controversial constitutional revisions she prefers. In effect, Yuriko Koike managed to split the DPJ into two opposition parties, her party, Hope, and Constitutional Democrat Party (CDP) established by parliamentarians Ms. Koike rejected to include in her party. As the majority of seats in the Lower House are decided in single-seat constituents, the division of opposition votes favored the ruling coalition.     

From the ashes of DPJ, CPD emerges as a credible opposition party

Perhaps tarnished by the image of “divisiveness” derived from this debacle, Hope performed badly in the election, ending up as the second largest opposition party gaining fewer seats than the number of mostly ex-DPJ members who took the pledge. CDP, on the other hand, more than tripled its seats in the Lower House to become the largest opposition party. Arguably, CDP is the party with the strongest momentum after the election. The demise of DPJ and the birth of CDP are the biggest political changes that took place through the course of the Lower House election in 2017. While critics will argue CDP is just a replacement for DPJ, CDP seems more united under its new leader Yukio Edano and could prove to be a stronger opposition to LDP.

Lower House seats distribution: Before and After

The remaining political drama

The political drama is not yet over. While the Lower House members of DPJ were split into CDP, Hope and independents, DPJ is still left with members of its Upper House parliamentarians. As of October 22, 49 Upper House members still belonged to DPJ, 20% of the total in the Upper House. It is probable that they would decide to join or at least form an alliance with CDP, but it will probably take a while for them to come to a conclusion. It is unclear if 49 of them can make a collective decision or if they may follow the fate of their Lower House members and splinter apart into several groups.      

What would Abe do with his new window of opportunity?

On the surface, Prime Minister Abe is now blessed with a significant political freedom. He will face no national election until the summer of 2019 when the next Upper House election is scheduled. Furthermore, now that the ruling coalition has a 2/3 supermajority in the Lower House, it could overturn the decision by Upper House even if the opposition party is to take control of it in 2019. In theory, PM Abe can pass any legislation for the next four years until the four-year term of the newly elected Lower House members expires. What will PM Abe do with the political freedom?

PM Abe could single-mindedly pursue his constitution revision legacy…

One likely course of his action could be that he would pursue a revision in Japan’s constitution in the next 12 months. It is commonly thought among watchers of Japan’s politics that a constitutional revision is an ultimate legacy PM Abe has been pursuing. The problem with this goal is that it would require a supermajority in both Houses to propose and then it has to pass a national referendum. Even within his party, LDP, there is yet no consensus on what revisions are desirable and the junior coalition member, Komei, is cautious against the general notion of a revision in the constitution. Two parties in the opposition, Hope and JRP, are in fact more willing for the revision, but they alone cannot help LDP form a supermajority in both houses.

Political mapping of political parties in Japan

A supermajority in both Houses is tough hurdle for PM Abe

Or, settle on the idea that a longer route is the shorter route

Another course of actions for PM Abe could be not to push for constitutional revisions hastily but to pursue other economic policies to regain popularity, in a bid to win stronger confidence in his leadership and eventually to his belief in the necessity for a constitutional revision. In Japan, as in many other countries, the popularity of a Prime Minister tends to decline with the passing of time, and aiming to raise one’s popularity after remaining in office for more than four years seems an impossible feat. PM Abe will also need to prolong his luck in having avoided a recession to befall on the Japanese economy for a few more years. The Japanese economy seems quite fragile against a potential global economic downturn, with both fiscal and monetary policies in Japan already stretched in its means to stimulate the economy.

Abe will probably choose a path of least resistance

In our view, PM Abe will steer the course between the two alternatives mentioned above, that is to prioritize constitutional revisions while attempting to maintain his popularity. This will probably involve avoiding to spend political capitals in implementing controversial but important reforms such as in those the area of the labor market, pension, and tax systems. In the meantime, the current mix of easy fiscal and monetary policies are likely to be maintained. It would be a wasted opportunity for Japan, as the current favorable economic circumstances offer the best time for structural reforms. However, at the same time, it is also usually the case that neither the government nor the people of a country realize the need for these reforms until an adverse economic shock hits the country and implement them in the worst timing.

Which is, no structural reforms with loose fiscal/monetary policies

As we wrote in the report we published a month ago “For all his shortcomings, PM Abe has the right economic policies”, maintaining a loose fiscal and monetary policies are the most appropriate policies for Japan, given the circumstances though. Japan’s public finance is already too heavily indebted and trying to return it to health through austerity policies is simply folly. It is interesting to observe that Japan’s debt to GDP ratio has been stable in the last two years, despite having loosened its fiscal policy in the period. In our view, inflation and growth are sweeter and more effective medicines to the fiscal indebtedness, and PM Abe has been correct to resist the voice of fiscal hawks, both inside and outside Japan. While structural reforms coupled with stimulative policies (the original “three arrows”) is the ideal policy mix, no structural reforms with stimulative policies would be still superior to no structural reforms with restrictive policies in Japan’s circumstances.  

Debt to GDP ratio has been stable since Advent of Abenomics