News analysis

Uphill battle for LDP to regain trust

Experts say Japanese PM should reopen the Diet session for questioning on a scandal

In the lead-up to the Tokyo assembly election on Sunday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said sorry at least three times for a litany of issues that have marred his party's image - his contrition a marked departure from his usual confident swagger.

But this cut no ice with Tokyo voters, who ousted over half of the 57 Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) politicians in the 127-seat local assembly.

The LDP suffered the humiliating rout at the hands of the untried Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First). The LDP fielded 60 candidates and won just 23 seats in a record low.

Tomin First, led by Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, fielded 50 candidates, of whom 49 were elected. The party and its allies together have a majority of 79 seats.

Her job done, Ms Koike yesterday quit as Tomin First chief to focus on her role as governor.

Experts said that many Japanese still crave political stability on the national level, haunted by three years of hapless opposition rule from 2009 to 2012. But voters in Tokyo - home to 13.7 million people and accounting for a fifth of the country's economy - were well aware that the poll was, in effect, a referendum on the ruling party and they wanted to send a message to the LDP that it had to do better.

"Tokyo, as the capital, is home to the Nagatacho political district, and so, voters will be inclined to consider national political issues apart from municipal issues," said Toyo University political scientist Katsuyuki Yakushiji.

All eyes are on whether this defeat might alter the party's timeline, as revising the supreme law of the land will require support from at least two-thirds of both the Lower and Upper Houses, and a simple majority in a public referendum.

Experts accuse Mr Abe of complacency as his support ratings have rarely dipped below 50 per cent in his 4½ years in power, despite his lawmakers committing a string of gaffes over the years.

The LDP has had a tumultuous year, with Mr Abe implicated in two favouritism scandals concerning educational institutions. The party has been seen as evasive in answering up to the scandals, and too forceful in ramming home controversial Bills.

"The two scandals and his riding roughshod over parliamentary norms have damaged Mr Abe's image," Dr Jeffrey Kingston of Temple University Japan said. "He is suffering from the arrogance of power and is turning people off in a culture where abiding by rules and self-effacement are valued."

Mr Abe said yesterday the LDP has to take seriously the stinging rebuke that his Cabinet had not succeeded in fulfilling the people's expectations. As he vowed to regain trust, he said the LDP will continue its focus on national issues. "We must not allow national politics to stall," he said. "We will sharpen ourselves up and reflect on what should be reflected on."

One measure that will be key to restoring trust, experts said, is for the LDP to reopen the Diet session, which ended last month, for Mr Abe to be questioned by the national opposition on a scandal where he is said to have pulled strings on behalf of a close friend to get a veterinary school approved.

Dr Kingston said: "Mr Abe has stonewalled demands by the opposition to reopen the Diet to look into the scandal, making him look guilty in the court of public opinion."

The LDP might also want to remind voters of its efforts to jumpstart the economy under the Abenomics policy. Prof Yakushiji said Mr Abe might even sweeten the deal with further measures in a new Budget plan due by next month.

Mr Abe might also try to win public opinion by appointing popular lawmakers to key roles in a Cabinet reshuffle expected next month. Gaffe-prone ministers, including defence chief Tomomi Inada, are at risk of being swapped out, experts said.

The LDP is also expected to forge ahead with its goal to revise the post-war Constitution, which Mr Abe has long declared was his ambition. All eyes are on whether this defeat might alter the party's timeline, as revising the supreme law of the land will require support from at least two-thirds of both the Lower and Upper Houses, and a simple majority in a public referendum.

The LDP and its allies now have the numbers in both chambers but this may not last - a Lower House poll is due by December next year.

"As long as the LDP government is fixated on the idea of revising the Constitution, the Lower House election will have to wait until late next year after a national referendum," said Sophia University political scientist Koichi Nakano.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 04, 2017, with the headline 'Uphill battle for LDP to regain trust'. Print Edition | Subscribe