Japan election: Shinzo Abe and his policies are unpopular, so why are voters set to stick with him?

Japan election: Shinzo Abe and his policies are unpopular, so why are voters set to stick with him?

Japan election: Shinzo Abe and his policies are unpopular, so why are voters set to stick with him?

Updated 22 October 2017, 19:50 AEDT

Japan's Prime Minister is both deeply unpopular and pursuing a policy agenda rejected by much of the electorate.

This election campaign began with so much promise.

Key points:

  • Two new political parties have emerged onto the scene
  • Poll conducted by local newspaper shows Shinzo Abe is expected to win
  • Same poll shows 51 per cent of respondents do not want Mr Abe to remain as PM

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe dissolved Parliament in late September, sending the country to the polls in a snap election today.

In the days that followed, Japanese politics suddenly got very interesting.

Two new political parties emerged onto the scene in quick succession to challenge Mr Abe's hold on power.

The popular Governor of Tokyo, Yuriko Koike, launched the Party of Hope, a "reformist conservative" party and polls showed 18 per cent of voters planned to support her.

Another party, led by the former cabinet minister Yukio Edano, also burst onto the scene, offering to fill a major void of representation on the left wing of politics.

But now, on the cusp of the election, Japan looks set to stick with Mr Abe — a leader who is both deeply unpopular and pursuing a policy agenda rejected by much of the electorate.

How did we get here?

When Governor Koike launched the Party of Hope, she unveiled a platform named "The Twelve Zeroes".

Party of Hope aims for:

  • Zero nuclear power
  • Zero concealment (i.e. full transparency of government)
  • Zero contributions from companies and Organisations
  • Zero children waiting for admission to nursery schools
  • Zero second-hand smoke
  • Zero crowded trains
  • Zero culling of stray animals
  • Zero food waste
  • Zero black corporations (i.e. unethical businesses)
  • Zero hay fever
  • Zero restrictions of movement for disabled people
  • Zero power poles

It was a plan to eliminate nuclear power, childcare waiting lists, ugly power lines, crowded trains and hay fever, among other things.

But the Party of Hope's poll numbers soon dwindled.

Ms Koike told voters she planned only to be the figurehead of the party and remain in her job as the Governor of Tokyo to oversee the Olympic Games in 2020.

When she was no longer seen as an alternative prime minister, the buzz about her in the Japanese media quietened. Voters switched off.

"Her own hedging about whether or not she would run for office and the waffling on that I think that took some of the shine off her party in the initial stages," said Jonathan Berkshire Miller, a senior visiting fellow with the Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo.

In just three weeks, all the excitement around the alternative parties petered out, and voters do not appear ready to back an untested party.

"The Abe administration obviously is trying to take advantage of this as well, selling the image that they have the experience, they have the stability and Japan's in a time economically and in security terms that it needs that stable hand," Mr Miller said.

Voters don't like Abe, but will vote for him anyway

A poll conducted by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper this week shows Mr Abe is expected to win re-election, but that does not mean he is popular.

According to the poll:

  • 34 per cent plan to vote for Liberal Democratic Party (Mr Abe)
  • 13 per cent plan to vote for the Constitutional Democratic Party (Mr Edano)
  • 11 per cent plan to vote for the Party of Hope (Governor Koike)

Mr Abe's lead in the polls should not be read as outright support — it is merely a reflection of a lack of choice.

That same poll showed that 51 per cent of respondents did not want Mr Abe to remain as Prime Minister.

In the last 12 months, Japanese voters have detected the odour of arrogance wafting around Mr Abe's shoulders.

A series of scandals where he has been seen to favour his mates added to the stench and saw his personal approval rating plummet to 36 per cent.

With the spectre of North Korea looming over this election, it seems voters are putting aside their discontent with Mr Abe as an individual, and plan to vote for the status quo.

The electorate doesn't like his policies, either

It becomes even more interesting when voters are asked about his policies.

Mr Abe's party has been pushing to reform Japan's post-war pacifist constitution, to allow Japan's Self-Defence Force to become a bona fide military in law.

But 40 per cent of respondents oppose that constitutional revision, compared with 37 per cent who were in favour of the change, the survey showed.

Mr Abe supports Japan retaining nuclear power; 55 per cent of voters say they hope nuclear power will be abolished.

"I'm not sure that nuclear policy right now is a prime deciding point for a lot of voters," Mr Miller said.

"So even though some of them may be sceptical of the Abe administration's approach to nuclear energy, it seems it is not enough of a game-changer to change their vote."

Young people — where are they?

Japan does not have compulsory voting. At the last national election, about 50 per cent of eligible voters turned out to vote. Of those people, two-thirds were aged over 60.

This means that Mr Abe was elected by a quarter of the eligible voters.

The Asahi poll shows that of voters aged between 18 and 29, 41 per cent are in favour of Mr Abe, followed by 13 per cent for the Party of Hope and 6 per cent for the Constitutional Democratic Party.

"For young people, the most important thing is employment. Japan is doing really well in that field when compared with other countries," Naohiro Yashiro, dean of Showa Women's University's global business department, told Reuters.

"This is not young people turning more conservative, but wanting to keep the status quo."

But there is a problem getting young people all the way to the ballot box. At the last national election, only 33 per cent of people in their 20s voted.

Kazumi Sugiura is trying to turn that around by encouraging students at her university to have their say.

She is part of a group called Vote at Chuo! (the name of the university) and has — for the past three weeks — been stopping students on the university campus and encouraging them to vote.

"I want young people to go and vote. I want them to show whether they're happy with the current politics, whether they're supportive or not," she said.

"I tell them that it's really easy to vote. Just go, write down a name and put it in the box. I say, it's very easy," she said.

Ayana Ohara is 18 and visits the Vote at Chuo! booth. She will be voting for the first time at this election. But she stands out from her group of friends.

"I don't talk about the election with my friends. I don't have many friends who are interested in politics. I talk about it with my family, not so much with friends," she said.