TOKYO — Japan's lower house election this coming Sunday finds the incumbent prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, fighting for his political life and, quite possibility, the survival of his own party.
Noda's support, according to the latest NHK opinion poll, has dropped to a record low 20 percent. And the Democratic Party of Japan he leads is widely forecast to get trounced in the December 16 parliament polling.
Until the DPJ victory in 2009, the Liberal Democratic Party, which despite its name is conservative, had led Japan for nearly all of the time since its formation in 1955.
Surveys predict the LDP, led by former prime minister Shinzo Abe, will win more than 300 of the 480 seats in the lower house, which is more powerful than the upper house for which elections are expected next July.
Japan has seen five heads of government since Abe, who is now 58, was last in office in 2007.
"We have a pretty good idea who is going to win," said Tokyo Eurasia Group counselor Jun Okumura. "I'm specifically talking about the Liberal Democratic Party under Shinzo Abe. It's safe to say the Liberal Democratic Party has, overall, shifted somewhat to the right, since the last election."
Shift to right
The LDP's movement farther to right came after its more moderate candidates in metropolitan districts were defeated in previous elections, gradually giving more power within the party to provincial conservatives.
The LDP's current election platform reflects that shift, including bolstering the size and power of the Self-Defense Forces.
Abe also favors a constitutional revision to the pacifist Article Nine, which prohibits Japan from rearming or participating in collective self-defense.
Other nationalistic elements in the platform are raising significant concern outside the country. They call for Japan to increase its effective control of islands also claimed by China and to re-examine historical issues, such as the so-called "comfort women," who were taken from colonial Korea and used as prostitutes by the Japan imperial forces during the Pacific War.
"If the new LDP government does implement this, this simply means more tension with China,” said former Japanese ambassador Kazuhiko Togo, director of the Institute for World Affairs at Kyoto Sangyo University. “If Japan does it, particularly in relationship to comfort women, in the way it is described in the platform, not only it will spoil completely our relations with [South] Korea, it will be a big blow to the alliance relationship."
The United States maintains military alliances with both Japan and South Korea and has tens of thousands of uniformed personnel stationed in the countries to help provide for their defense.
In recent years, the Pentagon has been attempting to bring both of its key allies in Northeast Asia closer together as their neighbor China becomes a global power. But efforts to encourage direct military ties between Tokyo and Seoul have foundered because of the lingering historical issues between the two capitals.
Japan’s parliament gridlock that has accomplished little of significance for years has led to public apathy, if not disgust, for the country’s traditional, multi-generational politicians. That has led to a sudden popularity of former governors and mayors as major national political figures in this election.
Wooing rural constituencies
For decades, the LDP was known for its massive funding of public works projects of dubious value and agricultural protectionism to woo rural constituencies.
"It is not a coincidence that we look to these administrator-politicians for unsullied leadership, from people who actually get things done," said Okumura, a 30-year veteran of Japan's Trade Ministry.
Okumura predicts that regardless of the outcome, neither of the two biggest parties, the LDP or the DPJ, will receive enough votes to allow any sweeping policy accomplishments by the next government.
"Either one of them will have difficulties going forward winning more than, say, one third of the popular vote. That does not look like a serious mandate for the kind of reforms that we need," Okumura said.
Thus a third party could have an outsized influence if the LDP falls short of a two-thirds majority.
And a major conductor of that third force is the former Tokyo governor, Shintaro Ishihara, whose critics label him a xenophobe.
Ishihara is, indeed, well known for his long-standing verbal attacks on foreign countries and foreigners, especially those from China.
Ishihara hopes his recently formed Japan Restoration Party will gain enough seats to hold the balance of power, possibly even resulting in him being asked to form the government.
Analysts say Wednesday's provocative space launch by North Korea, which flew over Okinawa, could give additional support to nationalistic candidates.
Another worrying incident for Japanese voters that could compel some of the undecideds to choose nationalist candidates is Thursday's unprecedented flight by a Chinese maritime surveillance plane over a group of tiny islands in the East China Sea controlled by Japan but claimed by China.
A Kyodo News survey shows the JRP, founded by populist Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, winning up to 50 seats. But the news agency's poll released Thursday shows 40 percent of voters still undecided
"You've got Ishihara rallying a kind of war mentality 'Let's get back to the glory of pre-1945 and let's challenge China in every possible way,'" said Princeton University professor Gilbert Rozman. "So I think the public opinion in Japan is confused, it's changed. And even though Abe would come to power with only about a third of the public supporting him, if Ishihara has another group, it's going to be difficult to manage that."
Rozman made the remark Tuesday in Seoul at a forum on China held by the Asian Institute for Policy Studies.
Another speaker at the forum, Keio University professor Nishino Junya, cautioned that until Abe secures a majority of seats in both houses of parliament, he cannot push his agenda and will manage cautiously.
Undermined by a pension scandal, Abe quit as prime minister five years ago, citing a chronic intestinal disorder which he says has since been effectively treated.
Abe, the grandson of a former prime minister, asserts he has the stomach to handle the job, which will also include the unappetizing challenge of trying to fix a long deteriorating economy that many economists say is again in recession.
Japan, with a graying population, in recent years slipped behind China into third place in terms of gross domestic product and a debt-to-GDP ratio in excess of 200 percent.