News analysis

Abe's six-point pledge has Party of Hope in mind

Campaign manifesto of Japan PM's LDP reflects drastic change in political landscape with new party Kibo No To

One party is vowing to "Protect Japan", while the other is pledging to "Reset Japan". The two campaign slogans are being bandied about by the incumbent Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its main challenger Kibo No To (Party of Hope) respectively, in the run-up to a snap election on Oct 22.

They are meant to appeal to the most primal of issues: "Are you, the voter, happy with the status quo?"

The upcoming Lower House poll will be the fourth national election since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office in December 2012. Mr Abe, in noting that the economy has been recovering, has said that his policies - in particular his trademark Abenomics - are a work in progress.

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, chief of Kibo No To, has, however, charged that Mr Abe epitomises the grey elite of Japanese bureaucracy and that his policies, however well-intended, have seen slow progress due to a reluctance for change and a hesitance in risk-taking.

The LDP was first off the blocks in unveiling its campaign manifesto on Monday, with a six-point platform to convince the people that it is the safer pair of hands to protect the nation's interests.

Its platform comprises some usual suspects - Abenomics, productivity, human resource development and regional revitalisation - and analysts say this indicates both the magnitude of Mr Abe's task to spark change, as well as the policies' somewhat lack of efficacy thus far.

But what has stolen the limelight is that, for the first time, the LDP's campaign pledges also include the government's responses to the North Korean threat, as well as constitutional revision.

The latter, analysts said, is particularly notable given the swirling controversy over Mr Abe's long-held goal, and how it is being thrust to the fore as a key campaign issue. They added that this was a calculated move to seize the initiative, given that Ms Koike, too, is in favour of constitutional revision.

"Since Kibo No To has now emerged as the LDP's chief rival, its position on the Constitution has allowed Abe to speak openly of a revision and to include this in the latest LDP manifesto," Dr Sota Kato, executive director of think-tank Tokyo Foundation, told The Straits Times.

University of Tokyo political observer Yu Uchiyama, too, noted that Mr Abe's goal of constitutional revision was downplayed in previous elections, as compared to his Abenomics economic policies.

The fact that both are being given equal footing this time, he added, "might be Abe's political bet".

Where the LDP and Kibo No To differ is in their position on a hike in consumption tax from 8 per cent to 10 per cent, due in October 2019.

Mr Abe has pitched this contest as a referendum on how he intends to use the additional 5 trillion yen (S$60 billion) generated from the hike. The original plan was to devote 80 per cent to repaying government debt - which is about 240 per cent of gross domestic product - and the rest to social security measures. Mr Abe now wants a 50-50 split.

These measures include free education for all pre-schoolers and free nursery services as well as free tertiary education for those from low-income families.

Ms Koike, however, said the tax hike should be put off until Japan's economy - which grew 1 per cent last year - gains sustainable momentum.

"What is notably missing from the LDP manifesto is its commitment to raising the tax as planned," Dr Kato said, calling it a "very tactical decision" to omit the plan.

He posited that this was due to the drastic change in political landscape with the rise of Kibo No To. "Mr Abe believed that a tax hike would not become a contentious campaign issue, (but) suddenly the LDP is being put in a position of having to defend an unpopular policy," he said.

This could be why the LDP has left out its pledge to raise taxes from its campaign promise, Dr Kato added. "But by downplaying the issue, it clearly shows the LDP's initial proposal to expand social security programmes was simply a political expedient."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 04, 2017, with the headline 'Abe's six-point pledge has Party of Hope in mind'. Print Edition | Subscribe