Oh Snap! Why did Japan and Britain’s 2017 Elections End Up so Differently?

By Grayson Lewis

British Prime Minister Theresa May (left) Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe(right)

The optics were sub-optimal for British Prime Minister Theresa May as she took to the podium in front of Number 10 Downing Street on a characteristically chilly and rainy London April morning. The wind tossed up her hitherto immaculate bob-cut hair, as passing cars honked loudly over her speech. More than the weather however, it was the content of May’s announcement that caught the attention of a sleepy British public. May confidently, yet very unexpectedly, announced her cabinet’s push for a snap election, to take place in less than two months’ time. This meant that -despite her recent stance up to that point that her government wasn’t seeking to do so- May was intending for British voters nationwide to return to the polls a whole three years ahead of schedule. For many observers who weren’t familiar with British politics, this begged a simple question: Why?

A snap election is a hallmark feature of the parliamentary system that Britain is well known for, and that so many other states in the world utilize as well. It is much as it sounds; the government “snaps its fingers,” and within a fortnight, a new election for parliament is held. Underlying the colloquialism is a shrewd logic. In many parliamentary systems including Britain’s, it takes a super majority of members of the legislature to vote for a snap election. Though a minority party will usually vote for such a maneuver in hopes of gaining more seats in a new election, what is the rationale for the majority party to do so as well? The parliament is after all, in effect voting to dissolve itself to be soon reformed by a new national poll.

In fact, snap elections are utilized by majority parties to consolidate political power, attempting to gain even more seats in parliament than they currently have. This grab for leverage is usually caused by a desire to have more room to govern, especially if the government plans to enact a legislative package that is contentious; i.e., hard to pass through the legislature. If a prime minister wants to do something that he or she expects will get a fair amount of pushback from the opposition and national media, say a massive tax increase, he or she can call for snap elections, believing that the party in power will maintain its parliamentary majority, if not increase it. “See now, the public has given me a mandate for my tax hike. Had they not, they wouldn’t have elected the party back to power!” would be a likely talking point for a successful prime minister after a victorious vote.

In Theresa May’s case, it was the loom of Brexit that prompted her to call for the now infamous 2017 election that no one seemed ready for. Her April announcement surely caught her political opponents and even many of her allies off balance. In the wake of the upset national plebiscite of summer 2016 that resulted in the United Kingdom’s decision to withdraw from the European Union, May’s predecessor, David Cameron, abruptly resigned. After an impromptu and overall lukewarm leadership race, the former Home Secretary suddenly found herself at the doorstep of Number 10 Downing Street. Feeling very much under the gun both from an angered European community, who held the results of the Brexit referendum in contempt, as well as a skeptical British public, half of whom had voted against leaving, May needed to gain room for political maneuvering as her government began its negotiations on leaving the EU. Despite the fact that her Conservative (or “Tory,”) Party held an outright majority in the House of Commons, May and her cabinet believed that an even greater legislative majority would give them the parliamentary votes needed to pass some of the more controversial parts of their Brexit program, such as a hard, national border with the EU in Ireland. In addition, the vote would give her more legitimacy as a Prime Minister, having been elected in her own right, rather than being seen as riding to power on Cameron’s coattails.

Even under the duress of the fallout from the Brexit vote -public polls measuring confidence levels in the prime minister had consistently been less than 50%- it seemed that May held an upper hand heading into the June elections. Her main rival, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn seemed out of step with the political views of the majority of Britons, and had trailed even lower than the PM in opinion polls for months. On June 8th, 2017 less than a month into her premiership, Theresa May rolled the dice and by a hair’s breadth, avoided becoming the shortest tenured British Prime Minister in modern history. The vote was an unmitigated disaster for the Tories, with the party losing 13 crucial seats, as Labour gained a staggering 30. This put the Conservatives in the position of having fallen short of the majority of seats in the House. It was only through an agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party, a small rightist Northern Irish bloc, that May’s government has managed to stay in power. Thus, the 61-year-old former banking consultant has started her new term as Prime Minister humbled, and on very precarious footing, all from a snap election that she technically didn’t have to call in the first place.

Three and a half months later on the other side of the world, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also called for a snap election in his country, similarly hoping to net greater political clout in the Japanese House of Peers for his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Unlike May, Abe’s move had been predicted for months, and the next Japanese election would have taken place in 2018 anyway. Moreover, Abe moved quickly, scheduling the snap elections for October 23rd, not even a full month after his call for the poll. The man who had held the post of Prime Minister for a year in 2006-07, lost it, and regained it again in 2012, sought to use an increased LDP majority in the National Diet to ram through a constitutional revision that would allow Japan to use offensive military action if it believed itself to be threatened. Such offensive action, likely to be targeted at China and/or North Korea, the states that Japan feels most threatened by, is highly controversial in the island nation of 127 million people. The renunciation of warfare has been a cornerstone of Japanese democracy since the end of the Second World War.

Unlike that of the British Prime Minister, the Japanese Prime Minister’s gamble worked. The LDP lost a few seats, but retained its parliamentary majority and power with its junior coalition partner party. The man descended from a long line of LDP lawmakers claimed a strong mandate from the Japanese public, and has set to work revising the contribution. So, what was it exactly that made the Japanese and British cases of snap elections so different? On paper, Japan and Britain appear in some respects to be birds of a feather: island states on the edge of their continents whose economies depend heavily on international trade. Politically, the two nations share a constitutional monarchy with a robust bicameral parliamentary democracy that feature a strong lower chamber and a weak upper chamber. Both have gained a reputation for aligning strongly with the interests of their mutual ally the United States. Both share a tainted legacy of colonialism. But the reason for divergence has to do not in the constitution, but the practical functioning of their political systems.

For one, Japan’s current center-left opposition party to Abe’s LDP is weak; very weak. So weak in fact, that in the months leading up to September 2017, it split into two different factions: A standard progressive faction led by longtime political operative Yukio Edano, and a centrist group headed by Yuriko Koike, Tokyo’s first female governor. The left in Japan -even before its division this autumn- has always been notoriously poor in its ability to gain a majority in either house of Japanese Parliament. Besides 2009-2012, and 1994-1996, the LDP has governed Japan uninterrupted since the end of World War Two. Owing to this, political commentators have often called Japan a “one-and-a-half party system.” This is not even remotely true in Britain’s case, where Tories have engaged in robust competition and power-turnover with opposition parties like the Liberals, and presently Labour for the entirety of the parliamentary system’s existence. Britain in many ways is the progenitor archetype of the classic “two-party system.” It comes as no surprise that Labour, though admittedly going through something of an identity crisis in the years leading up to 2017’s election, was still very capable of winning any given national poll, as it almost did this year.

Had Theresa May consulted the haruspices of her nation’s electoral history, she might have thought again before plowing forward with what will surely be regarded by future analysts as a heedless decision to call a snap. The history of successful snap polls in recent British politics has been dubious at best. Of the seven that were called in the 20th century, three failed, three were fully successful, and one had mixed results. (By that latter, I refer to when Harold Wilson called an election in 1974 that only barely gave him a working majority.) Moreover, of the three fully successful cases, only one was won by the Conservatives, in 1934, while two of the botched snaps resulted in the Tories losing their majority. A gaze into the crystal ball of Westminster might have warned May that her fate might end up very similar to those of Stanley Baldwin and Edward Heath. Meanwhile, Shinzo Abe had relatively few ill omens from Japan’s political past; the country’s first and only other snap had been in 2005, resoundingly won by Abe’s political mentor, Junichiro Koizumi.

Clarity of message is regarded by any pundit as essential to a campaign, and this factor was another difference between the fortunes of May and Abe’s campaigns this year. The May government’s first year in office was at best muddled in contradictory statements and actions, and at worst, entirely inconsistent with itself, with nuclear power, national insurance, and the introduction of a British bill of rights being some of the cabinet’s more noted flip-flops. But it was likely the May government’s decision to go back on its repeated promises not hold a snap election in the first place that British voters took the most umbrage with. Abe meanwhile had been doggedly consistent at attempting to accomplish his cabinet’s goals since he was elected in 2012. The prime minister has stuck with his ambitious economic overhaul plan designed to bring Japan out of its two decades of market malaise. His government has refused to scrap the plan, called “Abenomics” both by its supporters and detractors, even when it was at times nationally unpopular. Abe has also been resolute in his decision to re-arm Japan, refusing to bow to often vocal criticisms from a large number of Japanese citizens who still believe firmly in Japanese pacifism. For all of his controversial policy decisions, Shinzo Abe is at least consistent in them, something that Theresa May hasn’t been able to claim as of late.

2017 has truly been a year full of elections. A slew of notable democracies as diverse as France, Germany, South Korea, the Netherlands, Chile, Austria, Japan, and the United Kingdom all conducted national polls for head of state, legislature, or both. What’s notable about the latter two cases, Japan and the United Kingdom, is that neither country was supposed to vote this year. The prime ministers of both nations saw what they believed to be an opening for a power consolidation. In order to gain the high ground for coming political battles over complex policy debates, both decided to make a calculated risk and call a snap election. But a few underlying factors in the political structures of these two strikingly similar democracies have produced strikingly different results. Japan’s leader Shinzo Abe and his LDP are all the better for the gamble, while the electoral roulette of Britain’s Theresa May and her Conservatives may have permanently tanked their premiership.

Grayson Lewis is a first year MA student in the Democracy and Governance program. His interests include military alliances and political parties. He can be contacted at gtl14@georgetown.edu.

Snap elections are truly a political gamble, and prime ministers would be wise to make sure that fortune is in their favor before calling for one.