TOKYO: The North Korea crisis has been like “divine aid” for hawkish Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, experts say, burnishing his nationalist credentials and possibly tempting him into a snap election.
Abe is aiming to capitalize on a public perception of strong leadership in a time of crisis, as well as an opposition in turmoil, and is reportedly considering a vote as soon as late October.
Analysts say North Korea’s provocative actions—including a nuclear test and two missile launches over Japan—have fanned the fears of Japanese voters, and Abe will use the crisis to justify his call for an early general election.
“For Abe, it’s like divine aid,” Shinichi Nishikawa, a political analyst at Meiji University, told AFP.
The crisis has diverted attention away from a series of scandals that have pushed down Abe’s approval ratings, including allegations of favoritism to a friend in a business deal, which the premier strongly denies.
During the scandals, “people thought that he wouldn’t last, but by using his sense of crisis, Abe has managed to turn the situation around,” said Nishikawa.
Abe has sought to deliver a strong but reassuring message to a jittery population by reacting swiftly to missile launches and insisting his government has “complete grasp” of each projectile’s path.
He has also promised to do his best to “secure people’s safety and security”, with the government issuing rapid warnings to residents, complete with sirens and emergency text messages.
In a Yomiuri Shimbun survey released last week, half of respondents approved of Abe’s efforts to deal with the crisis compared to 37 percent with the opposite view.
“A sense of crisis has arisen among the Japanese people and they believe the country needs a hawkish leader now,” said historian Hideaki Kase.
“It is no wonder Abe’s support ratings went up as North Korean tensions rose,” he added.
‘Good chance’ for Abe
Political blue-blood Abe, in office since late December 2012, has pushed a nationalist agenda alongside a massive policy effort to end years of on-off deflation and rejuvenate the world’s third-largest economy.
Some commentators have suggested that Abe’s government is playing up the North Korean threat to Japan in order to bolster his bid to revise the pacifist constitution.
When the sirens went off on Friday, many Japanese felt a sense of helplessness, with only a matter of minutes to take shelter and few practical places to hide.
“I’m wondering if the alert system is practical or not,” Nishikawa said. “This could be rather a gesture to show their seriousness or justify the budget to beef up defense systems.”
But Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University Japan, says the current crisis is too serious to be playing politics.
“Does the government take advantage of the situation and even exaggerate the risk to the Japanese population? No, in the sense that it is really a crisis,” he said, while admitting that alerting the population just minutes before impact is “a bit ridiculous”.
Abe’s reported decision to call an election also came as the opposition camp struggles to offer a political alternative, with the largest opposition Democratic Party (DP) suffering a string of defections despite a recent change in leadership.
The DP’s decline accelerated in 2011 when the party, then in power, came under fire for poor crisis management over the Fukushima disaster, the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl.
“It’s good timing for (Abe’s conservative party) the LDP as the main opposition is on the verge of falling apart,” noted Toshihiko Matsuno, chief strategist at SMBC Friend Securities.
“They couldn’t do this before due to sagging support rates but they see a good chance.”
However, the LDP suffered a drubbing in local Tokyo elections in July, which analysts and newspapers blamed on an increasing “arrogance” on the part of the prime minister.
And some experts warned him against taking the election gamble.
“The North Korea crisis is one of the factors pushing Prime Minister Abe for snap elections,” said Naoto Nonaka, professor of politics at Gakushuin University in Tokyo.
“But I don’t think it’s a wise decision to call it now, which will merely fuel unnecessary fears among voters by inflating the sense of crisis without giving concrete measures to settle the issue,” Nonaka said.