Today the unnecessary election for the lower house in Japan takes place. For the first time in almost two weeks the streets are quiet as the campaign trucks are n longer allowed to shout-out their noisy endorsements of this or that candidate through the large loud-speakers that are seemingly attached to each and every one of them
The election is unneeded because it is almost impossible for the incumbent Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, to lose. He has called this election at a time when the opposition parties, especially the main opponent, The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) are so disorganised that they cannot even stand enough candidates to contest every seat. Many voters it appears will not waste a vote in agreement with them. Not that this means they will switch allegiance to Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) who remain scandal-prone and unpopular, at least with the young. With no acceptable place to put your mark of support, turn-out is predicted to be incredibly low.
The main reason this election is having so little impact on the imaginations of the electorate however is the fact that Abe came to power only two years ago and is offering nothing new this time around. He still has over half his original term to serve and though he has insisted, to a pliant media, that this vote is a referendum on his economic policies, called Abernomics, a victory today will also give him four more years and a tenuous mandate for what is probably the real reason behind the poll: the pursuit of his nationalist agenda.
Four days ago the State Secrets Law came into effect. There were protests of course but almost no one in the mainstream domestic press reported on them, or on the details of this draconian legislation, because of the need for election coverage to be seen as fair. On a day when people are being asked their opinion on one issue that affects them, namely the lie that this election is about a sales-tax increase, many do not realise that their rights to seek opinions or information; or their rights to ask questions about much more serious topics, has just been removed.
For example almost all information about nuclear issues in Japan can now conveniently be classified as a State Secret. After the accident at Fukushima Daichi nuclear power station on March 11th 2011 a majority of the population are understandably sceptical of the the nuclear industry and the technology itself. Abe is pro-nuclear and sees it as a cornerstone of Japan’s economic recovery, and perhaps future defence agenda. Safety fears about restarting the reactors can motive broad cross-sections of the population to protest. Now however, though there may be genuine problems with the businesses running these power stations or the continued problem of contamination in Fukushima, reporting on it or talking to reporters about it just got much riskier and more difficult.
Going off-message is not going to be allowed on issues of war-time guilt or future power-projections either with the white-washing of Imperial-era atrocities from media histories and school text-books or changes to the constitution that would allow a proper military and also permit it to take part in collective self-defence with allies like the US.
All in all this is a very important election in Japan. Abe will win that is a surety but the clever game of political timing in calling this snap election is a ruse clear to everyone who cares to look. There is the small chance that it could all back-fire on him though. The lack of energy in the electorate is particularly noteworthy and the sense of disenfranchisement they may feel with an unpopular leader is at best unpredictable. Many in Japan are feeling emboldened with their protests on nuclear issues and Article 9 and Abe will not face an easy path to his desired “Beautiful Nation” when his mandate is as fragile as this election will probably leave it. At this moment there is little dissent in his own party against his leadership but it could become a precarious authority weakened by each embarrassment of unpopularity and we might even see moves to un-seat him soon after the election or at some water-shed moment of policy change in the next four years.
Let’s hope so.
Anyway I got to photograph the man on Friday night as he was electioneering in Saitama. Needed a longer lens though. Last time I shot Abe was just after he quit at Prime Minister the first time. He was in Shibuya on some anti-foreigner platform with one of those “here to day – gone tomorrow” political parties and there was no security as he was a bit of a joke at that time. I was able to stand very close and take pictures and as he looked directly at me and questioned my existence, I was able to do the same back.