Oh Snap! Will Japan’s Surprise Election Backfire on Shinzo Abe?

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Paul Kane/Getty Images

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe surprised the world when he announced a snap election. He’s hoping to take advantage of an opposition in disarray and to cement his hold on Japan’s Lower House of Parliament (Diet). While there are strong reasons for doing so, there’s a good chance it could blow up in his face, just as it did for British Prime Minister Theresa May when she called her’s earlier this year.

What Is a Snap Election?

A “snap election” means the ruling party calls for an election much earlier than the calendar requires. There are several reasons for doing so. First, if the leader is popular, he or she may want to take advantage of the chance to pack parliament with supporters. Second, a beleaguered leader might call a snap election because the leader wants a show of confidence among supporters. Third, snap elections provide leaders an opportunity to take advantage of disarray in the opposition party. Hoping to pick up more seats, the leader tries to catch the opposing party when they are least likely to offer an effective campaign.

Snap elections can be fraught with peril for the party in power or the opposition. When the prime minister or chancellor calls this sudden election, his or her own party might not be ready, leaving it vulnerable to mistakes. The same effect applies to the opposition.


Why Abe “May” Lose This Snap Election

In previous cases, calling a snap election has blown up in the legislative leader’s face. Sometimes, the leader misjudges how popular he or she really is. French President Jacques Chirac thought he was much beloved, which wasn’t actually the case. Because of his style and his unpopular prime minister, the conservative leader lost the National Assembly to the Socialists.

In the case of a beleaguered leader, New Zealand’s National Party’s Robert Muldoon only had a one seat majority, on top of having to deal with party rebels. He announced a snap election while intoxicated, and the New Zealand Labor Party prevailed easily. There’s a reason people call it “The Schnapps Election.”

This year, British Prime Minister Theresa May had a majority with her Tory Government. She called a snap election to catch the British Labour Party while stuck with the ultra-liberal Jeremy Corbyn. But it was the bearded, unconventional politician who provided the surprise. May ran an weak campaign and even skipped a debate. Her muddled message led to her Conservative Party losing its majority. It had to make a coalition with a North Irish Party, a humiliating setback.

Abe may think he has the lead, but not all polls agree. Some show him with a lower level of support, with undecided voters making up the majority of the survey. Moreover, Abe’s LDP faces a breakaway faction of his party, who left to try to build their own. Such a move could sap his party of much-needed support in the Japanese Diet. That’s a “sobering” thought, as New Zealand’s Muldoon would agree if he was still around.

Why Abe Might Win

For every story of a lost snap election, there are plenty of cases where it proved successful. Though there are risks for the party trying to shake up parliament, the opposition could be just as unprepared for one, providing a political advantage for the politician who knows they are coming.


And Japan has had a history of snap elections too. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi called a snap election in 2005 to catch the Democratic Party of Japan unprepared and get rid of rebellious Liberal Democratic Party politicians. Koizumi’s party won two-thirds of the vote in that historic election.

Abe has good reasons for calling a snap election. He wants to change the Japanese constitution to eliminate some of its pacifist elements, which would enable him to enact a robust foreign policy for dealing with Kim Jong-un. Speaking of the North Korean leader, perhaps Abe feels that the bellicose nature of the ruler might scare some voters into his camp.

While some polls show Abe’s right-leaning Liberal Democratic Party faltering, others show he is well-positioned to knock out his main rival, the Democratic Party of Japan. And with support from the Komeito, Abe’s coalition might have enough votes to rewrite the rules.

Why This Matters

Japan is the U.S.’ military ally, friend in East Asia, and valuable member of the anti-North Korean alliance. Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party is on friendly terms with the United States, whereas the Democratic Party of Japan might disagree with America’s foreign policy. Because America wants a unified front against North Korea, it will root for a big Abe win.

John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga. He can be reached at jtures@lagrange.edu. His Twitter account is JohnTures2.

Oh Snap! Will Japan’s Surprise Election Backfire on Shinzo Abe?