Originally published in The Hindu on October 17, 2017

For usually staid Japan, the last few weeks have been politically rambunctious. Caught in the exchange of verbal missiles between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump, even as ballistic ones flew overhead, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe suddenly announced a snap election for October 22, more than a year ahead of schedule.

Since then, Mr. Abe’s most prominent rival, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, has launched a new party, Kibō no Tō or Party of Hope; the main opposition, the Democratic Party (DP) of Japan, has collapsed and disbanded in spectacular fashion; and another party, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, comprised of the more left-leaning wing of the DP, has been born.

Opinion polls are swinging wildly, going from predicting a major upset in Ms. Koike’s favour, to a resurgence in Mr. Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) electoral fortune.

Why call for polls now?

But what explains Mr. Abe’s choice of timing in throwing down the electoral gauntlet so early in the parliament’s term? A concatenation of factors seems to be involved including tailwinds to the Prime Minister’s approval ratings from Pyongyang’s weapons testing, as well as the desire to capitalise on an opposition that is in almost cartoonish disarray. Ms. Koike — hitherto only a player at the municipal, Tokyo-level — found her capacity to scale-up and field a full arsenal of candidates for the 465 seats in the Diet’s lower house curtailed by the snap poll. Her Party of Hope has only been able to cobble together candidates to contest 235 seats.

The suddenness of the announcement also nipped anti-Abe coalitions in the bud by depriving them of the time needed to sort out differences and find common campaign platforms. In short, it ensured a level of chaos from which the LDP — the party that has straddled the post-World War II Japanese political landscape like a dark-suited, conservative colossus — can only benefit.

A final explanation, popular with the opposition parties, is that by dissolving parliament, Mr. Abe was trying to avoid further questioning related to two corruption scandals linked to him that surfaced over the summer. It may be impossible to know exactly what his prime motivation was, but present indications suggest that the gamble has paid off. Most election watchers are predicting a win for the LDP and its coalition partner, the centrist Komeito, whose major constituency of supporters comes from the Buddhist Soka Gakkai movement.

There is less consensus, however, on the key question of the number of seats that the LDP will win. If it maintains its tally of 288 or increases it (several polls are predicting a 300-plus seat-victory), Mr. Abe’s stature will be bolstered. But if the LDP loses seats, even if it maintains a simple majority, Mr. Abe’s prestige will take a hit, with potentially negative consequences for his shot at wining a third term at his party’s internal leadership polls next year.

A fractured opposition

The problem with the anti-Abe vote is that it is too fractured. Ms. Koike has failed to bring the different factions of the opposition under a single pagoda. Despite being urged by the former DP chief, Seiji Maehara, to throw in their lot with Ms. Koike, the more liberal members of the erstwhile DP found it impossible to make common cause with her, and announced a splinter group, the Constitutional Democratic Party, as recently as October 2.

The Party of Hope’s fortunes became even less hopeful once Ms. Koike made it clear that she would not run for a Diet seat herself, choosing instead to stay on and complete her term as Tokyo governor. This has left the new party rudderless, lacking a prime ministerial candidate.

Perhaps the most important explanation of Ms. Koike’s dilemma is that she essentially cannibalises from a shared ideological space with the LDP, a party to which she herself belonged for many years. Like Mr. Abe, Ms. Koike is a conservative with nationalist leanings and has not demonstrated that her policy stances amount to much more than anti-Abe opportunism.

The Party of Hope is more cautious on nuclear power than the LDP and has also vowed to freeze a tax hike that the LDP supports. But on the crucial question of constitutional revision, in particular amending Article 9 — a clause that outlaws war as a means to settle international disputes and restricts Japan’s ability to maintain a military deterrent — Ms. Koike, a former Defence Minister, is sympathetic to shoring up Japan’s military.

In many ways this election is about Mr. Abe’s determination to press ahead with constitutional revision. And almost all the major parties in play — the LDP, the Komeito, the Party of Hope, and the Osaka-based Ishin no Kai (restoration party) — support the idea of amendment.

A natural inference would be that the Japanese electorate backs the proposed changes. But, in fact, opinion polls regularly demonstrate that the majority of Japanese remain opposed to tinkering with Article 9. An Asahi Shimbun poll conducted in May, for example, had 63% of respondents against and only 29% in favour of the amendment.

Voters on auto mode

This gulf between what the electorate seem to want and what their would-be elected representatives are interested in representing points to deeper flaws in the Japanese political system. Arguably, Japanese democracy is more formal than substantial. People choose from an array of political parties, yet the LDP has almost never been out of power since it was established in 1955. The only exceptions were brief periods between 1993 and 1994, and from 2009 to 2012.

This is not because voters adore the LDP. Public support for the LDP chief, Mr. Abe, was lower than 30% as recently as July. It is because the Japanese are afflicted with a bad and protracted case of TINA (there is no alternative). As a result they tend towards being passive voters, and passive supporters of the LDP, without the sense that they can shape their own futures.

A substantial share of the votes that the LDP garners are votes by default, cast by citizens on auto mode, because that’s what they’ve always done. The sense of disconnect between politicians and electorate generates a kind of unreality exemplified by October 14th’s headlines in the Japan Times. With one week to go for the elections, lead stories in the newspaper were: ‘G20 finance chiefs, upbeat on world economy, affirm coordination over risks’; ‘Shift towards renewable energy appears to be picking up steam’; ‘Japan’s ‘way of the sword’ baffles foreign observers’; and ‘Japan zoo mourns death of anime-loving celebrity penguin’.

That people seem more exercised about the penguin than their upcoming vote is only good news for Mr. Abe and the LDP.