The campaign for the Oct. 22 House of Representatives election kicked off on Oct. 10. Voters have three choices -- the ruling coalition comprising the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Komeito, the conservative alliance between the Party of Hope and Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party) and the liberal bloc consisting of the Japanese Communist Party (JCP), the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP).
There is no denying that all political parties are largely underprepared for the election because Prime Minister Shinzo Abe suddenly dissolved the lower house on Sept. 28. Even the LDP, led by Abe, was forced to hastily draw up its campaign pledge.
The current single-seat electoral system was created on the assumption that two major political parties compete for one seat in each electoral district. However, the political world has been split into three blocs, making voters' choices complex.
Apart from the LDP, all political parties have failed to field enough candidates to secure a majority in the lower house -- 233 of its 465 seats. Therefore, questions remain as to whether the general election meets the necessary conditions for allowing voters to select a political party to run the government.
How the achievements of the nearly 5-year-old government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe should be evaluated and whether Abe should stay in power until the autumn of 2021 will be key points of contention. If the governing coalition is to secure a comfortable majority, Abe would likely be re-elected LDP president in autumn next year to another three-year term.
Abe's predominance in the political world has allowed the ruling coalition to take advantage of its majority to enact controversial legislation. These laws include the security-related legislation, which has opened the way for Japan's limited exercise of the right to collective self-defense, and revisions to the Act for Punishment of Organized Crimes and Control of Crime Proceeds to criminalize "preparatory acts to commit organized crimes such as terrorism" by changing the conditions that constitute conspiracy.
Distortion of administrative practices has become clear as is shown by Prime Minister Abe's favoritism scandals involving two school operators -- the Kake Educational Institution and Moritomo Gakuen. The prime minister has failed to provide a convincing explanation about these two cases, which caused the approval ratings for his Cabinet to plummet. The public is sharply divided over its evaluation of "Abenomics," the Abe government's economic policy mix.
The most important point of contention is the pros and cons of Abe's politics, including the way he dissolved the lower house while calling the North Korean situation a "national crisis."
Prime Minister Abe has declared that he will stay in power if the LDP-Komeito bloc secures a majority in the chamber. Even if the coalition is to win just one more than half of the chamber's seats, the prime minister will likely declare that his government has won public confidence.
However, such an explanation would be far from convincing. The prime minister dissolved the lower chamber apparently as a self-protection measure by trying to divert public attention from his favoritism scandals and other problems. Even if the ruling coalition were to manage to secure a majority but significantly decrease its strength in the chamber, a growing number of LDP legislators would hold the prime minister responsible for the outcome, making it difficult for him to be re-elected to a third term as LDP president in the next party leadership race in autumn 2018.
In other words, the general election could lead to a change of prime minister.
Party of Hope leader Yuriko Koike, who also serves as Tokyo governor, chose not to run in the lower house election.
Koike says her party will decide whom it will vote for in the Diet election for prime minister after seeing the outcome of the general election.
The Party of Hope has a clear goal of unseating the Abe administration, but it apparently has not ruled out the possibility of joining hands with the LDP in case Abe steps down.
The Party of Hope, which maintains such an unclear position, is irresponsible as a political party that aims to take over the reins of government.
Koike says the Party of Hope "offers a choice to voters in order to rectify Japan's politics in which Abe is predominant." If so, the party should clarify specifically how it intends to respond to the outcome of the election.
Campaign pledges unveiled by various political parties have clarified differences over individual policy issues.
A key theme is constitutional amendment. If the LDP is to win the election, discussions on constitutional revisions would likely focus on Prime Minister Abe's proposal to add a paragraph stipulating the existence of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to Article 9 of the Constitution while retaining the clause's war-renouncing paragraph 1 and paragraph 2 that bans Japan from possessing any war potential.
The Party of Hope is enthusiastic about amending the postwar Constitution, but is critical of the prime minister's proposal. The CDP is opposed to revising Article 9 based on the premise of maintaining the security legislation.
The LDP has pledged to raise the 8 percent consumption tax to 10 percent in October 2019 as scheduled, but to divert a portion of additional revenue from the tax hike to cover the expenses of making education free and other policy measures. The Party of Hope and Nippon Ishin insist that the indirect tax levied on virtually all goods and services be kept at the current level. The CDP is also critical of the planned tax increase.
Nuclear power policy has also emerged as a focal point at issue during campaigning as the Party of Hope has pledged to rid the country of nuclear power by 2030 if it takes over the reins of government. The CDP, the JCP and the SDP also share the view that nuclear power should be eliminated. This should lead to national debate on the issue.
Active debate should also be held on the pros and cons of relocating U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within Okinawa Prefecture.
A series of gaffes and scandals has called into question the quality of legislators. Therefore, it is important for voters to carefully assess the attributes of individual candidates.
Voters will have numerous opportunities to see high-ranking members of political parties and candidates deliver campaign speeches. Voters should pay close attention to not only what candidates emphasize but also what they are reluctant to mention.
In the election, voters face difficult choices between the continuation of Abe's predominance, a change in prime minister under the LDP-Komeito coalition or allowing opposition parties to take over the reins of government. Voters should carefully consider what sort of political situation would be best for the country.