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Putin wins Russian parliamentary elections despite economic woes

Both Russian president Vladimir Putin and Chechnya's governor Ramzan Kadyrov face "votes" on Sunday. (AFP)
Both Russian president Vladimir Putin and Chechnya’s governor Ramzan Kadyrov won their respective “elections” on Sunday. (AFP)

Earlier this month, voters went to the polls in Belarus to elect the country’s rubber-stamp parliament under its authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko and, in what amounts to democratic liberalization, two opposition MPs were elected to the 110-member assembly from the constituency that contains Minsk, the capital.chechnyaRussia Flag Icon

Last weekend, a higher number of opposition MPs were elected to the  state Duma (ду́ма), the lower house of the Russian federal assembly, when Russian voters took to the polls on September 18. Nevertheless, despite the unfair and unfree nature of Russian elections, an electoral rout for president Vladimir Putin’s United Russia (Еди́ная Росси́я) means that Putin will now turn to the presidential election scheduled for 2018 with an even tighter grip on the Duma after United Russia increased its total seats from 238 to 343 in the 450-member body. As predicted, Putin took fewer chances in the September 18 elections after unexpected setbacks in the 2011 elections that saw United Russia’s share of the vote fall below 50% for the first time. 

Moreover, nearly all of the remaining seats were awarded to opposition parties — like Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party (Политическая партия ЛДПР), Gennady Zyuganov’s Communist Party (Коммунистическая Партия) and Sergey Mironov’s A Just Russia (Справедливая Россия) — that long ago ceased to be anything but plaint, obedient and toothless in the face of Putin’s autocratic rule, whose party logos even mirror those of Putin’s United Russia party. Putin’s liberal opponents, operating under greater constraints than in past elections, failed to win even a single seat to the parliament.



The drab affair marked a sharp contrast with the 2011 parliamentary elections, the aftermath of which brought accusations of fraud and some of the most serious and widespread anti-government protests across Moscow (and Russia) since the end of the Cold War, prompting demands for greater accountability and democracy. Today, however, though Russia’s economy is flagging under international sanctions and depressed global oil and commodities prices, Putin’s power appears more absolute than ever. He’s expected to win the next presidential election with ease, thereby extending his rule through at least 2024 (when, conceivably, American voters could be choosing the successor to a two-term administration headed by either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump). 

Moreover, more than 18 months after opposition figure Boris Nemtsov was murdered just footsteps from the Kremlin, perhaps the most telling statistic was the drop in turnout — from around 60% in the 2011 parliamentary elections to just under 48% this year. That’s the lowest in a decade, even as reports emerged of ballot-stuffing and other dirty tricks that may have artificially boosted support for Putin’s United Russia. Turnout in Moscow and St. Petersburg, where opposition voices have traditionally been loudest, fell even more precipitously to well below 30%. Though the low turnout might have boosted the share of support that Putin and his allies won, it’s also the clearest sign of growing disenchantment with Putin’s regime and its record on the economy (which contracted by nearly 4% last year, and is expected to contract further in 2016) and on civil and political rights. Corruption, as usual, remains rampant, even if oligarchs no longer dominate the Russian economy as they did in the 1990s. 

Perhaps the most well-known opposition leader today, Alexei Navalny, a blogger who was at the heart of the 2011 protests, has been notably quiet (with his own ‘Progress Party’ banned from the election), though he is expected to contest the 2018 presidential vote — at least, if he’s not banned or imprisoned.

As a depressed number of Russian voters cast ballots in Sunday's parliamentary vote, president Vladimir Putin seems to have the upper hand in the cat-and-mouse game with Russia's long-suffering liberal opposition. (TASS)
As a depressed number of Russian voters cast ballots in Sunday’s parliamentary vote, president Vladimir Putin seems to have the upper hand in the cat-and-mouse game with Russia’s long-suffering liberal opposition. (TASS)

Notably, it was the first election since 2003 in which half (225) of the Duma’s seats were determined in single-member constituencies, with the other half determined by party-list proportional representation as in recent elections. Though United Russia won just 140 of the 225 proportional seats, it took 203 of the single-member constituency seats, which undoubtedly contributed to its 105-deputy gain on Sunday. One such new United Russia deputy is Vitaly Milonov, a St. Petersburg native who has battled against LGBT rights for years, including a fight to introduce a law in the local city parliament in St. Petersburg banning so-called ‘gay propaganda.’ (For what it’s worth, Russian authorities today censored one of the most popular gay news websites in the country).

For the Kremlin, though there’s some risk that the new constituency-elected deputies could be more independent-minded than party-list deputies, it’s a risk balanced by the massive supermajority that Putin now commands in the Duma.

Conceivably, as Moscow’s economic woes grow, there’s nothing to stop Putin and his allies from moving the scheduled presidential election to 2017 — and there are signs that Putin plans to do exactly that. (The weekend’s parliamentary elections were moved forward to September from an earlier plan to hold them in December, scrambling opposition efforts).

The elections came just a month after Putin replaced a longtime ally, Sergei Ivanov, as his chief of staff, a sign that the Kremlin is already looking beyond the next presidential race to what would be Putin’s fourth term in office (not counting the additional period from 2008 to 2012 when Putin’s trusted ally Dmitri Medvedev served as president, with Putin essentially running the country as prime minister).

Anti-gay crusader Vitaly Milonov won a member constituency race in St. Petersburg. (RIA)
Anti-gay crusader Vitaly Milonov won a member constituency race in St. Petersburg. (RIA)

For Putin, the flawed parliamentary vote also comes at a crucial time for Russia’s role in the international order. Increasingly at odds with NATO, Putin thumbed his nose at American and European officials when he annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, then helped instigate a civil war in eastern Ukraine that continues even today. Increasingly, Putin believes that Russia has a geopolitical responsibility to all Russian-speaking people, even those outside Russia’s borders, complicating relations with several former Soviet states. Putin has also stepped up Russian military assistance to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, providing crucial support against Sunni-dominated militias in Aleppo and elsewhere — even as Russian and U.S. officials try to extend a ceasefire in the country’s now five-year civil war.

Moreover, though the Russian parliamentary elections are hardly front-page international news, the results are relevant to the 2016 US presidential election, in which Russian influence and cyberattacks have played a prominent role. As Republican nominee Donald Trump continues to praise Putin as a ‘strong leader,’ it’s important to note that Putin’s strength comes in large part from a brutal disregard for the rule of law and the liberal and democratic values that have, for over two centuries, been a fundamental bedrock of American politics and governance. To the extent that the next president of the United States has to deal with Putin’s ‘strength,’ it will be derived in part from a parliamentary victory yesterday that bears no resemblance to the kind of democracy practiced in the United States today, but through a mix of authoritarian force and coercion.  Continue reading Putin wins Russian parliamentary elections despite economic woes

Some thoughts on Japan

Tokyo's Shinjuku neighborhood at nighttime.
Tokyo’s Shinjuku neighborhood at nighttime.

Readers will note Suffragio‘s sparse publication schedule over the Memorial Day holiday and the following week. Japan

That’s because I’ve been traveling in Japan (for the first time, though not the first time in Asia), and though I had been planning to scale down my writing on world politics, I hadn’t expected to spend quite so much time walking, talking, eating, drinking and exploring in a culture in which I’ve tried to immerse myself, at least as time has allowed, in the three months leading to the trip. I hope to spend much of the rest of the summer continuing to learn more about the country’s history, food and, above all, its cinema. (And, of course, its politics — senatorial elections are coming quickly in August).

A bamboo grove on the outskirts of Kyoto.

In any event, everyone needs a break from world politics, especially in an American presidential election year that’s atypically unpredictable. There’s only so much one can write about Brexit.

If interesting, here are some of my thoughts about 11 days in Japan.

The train rolls up before 6:30 am in rural Mie peninsula.
The train rolls up before 6:30 am in rural Mie peninsula.

The best infrastructure in the world. I am tempted to say that the United States could benefit from Japan’s counter-occupation for a few years. I understand why Japan, which has a smaller area and a denser population (especially on Honshu, the most populous island), has a more plausible rationale for a high-speed rail network than the United States. But to come from Washington, D.C., where the Metro system is experiencing dangerous fires and unimaginable levels of dysfunction, the sophistication of Japan’s infrastructure is staggering by contrast. Japan’s 1990s-era bullet trains were faster than today’s Acela Express, the so-called ‘high speed’ train that runs from Boston to Washington. Continue reading Some thoughts on Japan

Seoul-Tokyo relations at heart of US ‘Asian pivot’ wishlist

abelincolnPhoto credit to AFP / Getty.

Courting controversy for his refusal to issue a formal apology from Japan to South Korea and other Asian neighbors whose nationals were conscripted into service as ‘comfort women’ during World War II, Japanese prime minister nevertheless embraced the United States in a joint address to the US Congress Wednesday:South Korea Flag IconJapanUSflag

My dear friends, on behalf of Japan and the Japanese people, I offer with profound respect, my eternal condolences to the souls of all American people that were lost during World War II.

Though Abe expressed deep repentance for Japanese actions that caused suffering to Asian neighbors, and though Abe said that Japan must not avert its eyes from that, he bluntly noted that ‘history is harsh’ and that ‘what’s done cannot be undone.’ Presumably, that includes the abduction of women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese army during World War II across much of Asia, chiefly in Korea, which remained under Japanese occupation from 1910 to 1945. Even discussing the issue today is still widely controversial in both Japan and South Korea, but it’s enough of an affront to South Korea that South Korean president Park Geun-hye has only met with Abe once — and apparently, she was less than impressed with Japanese diplomacy.

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RELATED: Japan is once again an essentially one-party country

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Abe’s refusal, and the refusal of prior Japanese prime ministers, to apologize has caused diplomatic tension with China and, more importantly for US purposes, South Korea, which US officials hope can become a closer Japanese ally in their mutual quest to balance China’s growing regional power. Though the US-Japanese relationship is strong today, it’s odd, upon reflection, that a Japanese official would apologize to the country that deployed not one, but two, atomic bombs on Japan while remaining recalcitrant vis-a-vis Korea.

Mike Honda, a Democratic member of the US House of Representatives from California and himself an American of Japanese descent, brought Lee Yong-soo, a Korean woman forced into service as a ‘comfort woman’ in 1944 at the age of 16, to Abe’s congressional address in protest.

Mistrust between the two countries runs deep. Surveys show that Abe is more unpopular throughout South Korea today than North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un.

The apology issue was the most contentious of a broad portfolio of policy issues between the United States and Japan, as Abe continues his red-carpet visit to the United States, which included a personal tour of Washington’s monuments with US president Barack Obama (pictured above with Abe) and a state dinner on Tuesday night.
Continue reading Seoul-Tokyo relations at heart of US ‘Asian pivot’ wishlist

Ozawa, Japan’s one-time ‘shadow shogun,’ survives wipeout

ozawaPhoto credit to Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty.

In Japanese politics, few figures loom larger than Ichirō Ozawa (小沢 一郎), who has been a MP in Japan’s parliament since 1969.Japan

On Sunday, he faced the largest challenge of his political career, when as the leader of the People’s Life Party (生活の党, Seikatsu no Tō), he struggled to hold onto his own constituency in northern Iwate prefecture, campaigning in his home city of Ōshū for the first time in three decades.

As it turns out, Ozawa (pictured above) held off his opponent by more than 10 points, winning one of just two seats for the People’s Life Party. So while Ozawa will return to the House of Representatives, the lower house of Japan’s parliament, the Diet (国会), he will do so as an increasingly isolated relic after reaching the pinnacle of leadership in both the dominant Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP, or 自由民主党, Jiyū-Minshutō) of prime minister Shinzō Abe (安倍 晋三) and the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ, or 民主党, Minshutō), which held power for three tumultuous years from 2009 to 2012.

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RELATED: Japan is once again an essentially one-party country

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Known for decades as Japan’s ‘shadow shogun’ for the power he wielded behind closed doors, it’s no exaggeration to say that Ozawa is one of the leading figures of postwar Japanese politics. He was a vital figure in the LDP’s 1980s dominance, and he was instrumental in leading the only two movements that have dislodged the LDP’s six-decade political hegemony. In 45 years of political life, Ozawa himself has gone from conservative to liberal and back again with no clear ideological compass beyond gaining (and regaining) power. Although he’s a controversial figure, there’s no doubting that he has played a greater role than nearly anyone else in Japan in the effort to create a truly multi-party system, even while he’s disparaged Christianity as an exclusionary religion, claimed to ‘hate’ Europe and once derided Americans as ‘mono cellular’ and ‘simple-minded.’

At age 72, and leading a caucus that contains just one other legislator, few would disregard Ozawa’s ability to mount yet another comeback, especially if Abe’s efforts to stimulate Japan’s economy, once again tumbling into recession, ultimately fail. That’s especially true with few credible opposition figures in sight.  Continue reading Ozawa, Japan’s one-time ‘shadow shogun,’ survives wipeout

Japan is once again an essentially one-party country


As expected, Japan’s prime minister Shinzō Abe (安倍 晋三) and the governing Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP, or 自由民主党, Jiyū-Minshutō) easy won snap elections called less than three weeks ago.Japan

Despite growing doubts about Japan’s precarious economy, which entered an official recession last quarter, Abe maintained a two-thirds majority in the lower house of Japan’s parliament. The most amazing fact of the election is that Japan’s opposition parties, despite a feeble effort against Abe’s push for reelection, lost virtually no ground.

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RELATED: Abe calls snap elections in Japan as recession returns

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Nevertheless, it’s hard not to conclude from the results and the sudden December election campaign that Japan today has essentially returned to one-party rule for the time being. It puts a grim end to a period that began in 1993 with the first non-LDP government in over 40 years, and that culminated with the clear mandate of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ, or 民主党, Minshutō) in the 2009 general election. The DPJ cycled through three different prime ministers in three years, and it often appeared to stumble in its efforts to respond to the global financial crisis, longstanding declines in demographic and economic trends and the 2011 meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear reactor.

By December 2012, with promises of a massive new wave of monetary and fiscal stimulus, Abe (pictured above) swept the DPJ out of office, wining a two-thirds majority in conjunction with its junior coalition partner, the Buddhist, conservative and generally more pacifist Kōmeitō (公明党). That coalition, which controlled 326 seats in the House of Representatives, the lower house of Japan’s parliament, the Diet (国会), will now control 325 seats after Sunday’s election.


After its defeat in 2012, the Democratic Party elected Banri Kaieda (海江田 万里) as its new leader, essentially its fourth party head in four years. Kaieda, however, presented as an uninspiring choice for leader and he never seemed to grasp just how much rebuilding would be required in the aftermath of the party’s wipeout. Kaieda lost his own Tokyo constituency on Sunday, and will step down as party leader. But with just 198 candidates contesting the 325 seats elected directly, the DPJ was unprepared to wage a credible campaign to retake the Japanese government. Continue reading Japan is once again an essentially one-party country

One solution to Moldova’s problems? Just join Romania.

moldovaPhoto credit to adrianhancu / 123RF.

By just about any measure, Moldova’s first quarter-century as an independent state has been inauspicious long before last weekend’s parliamentary elections.moldova

Emerging from the Soviet Union as a new state engaged in a war with separatists in Transnistria, Moldova is today the poorest country on continental Europe, and successive governments have left the country with antiquated and corrupt institutions that culminated in widespread protests (pictured above) and a political crisis in 2009. In 2014, no country in the former Soviet Union, including Ukraine, is perhaps more at risk from Russian aggression.

Though a coalition of three relatively pro-European parties appear to be moving forward to form a governing coalition, the winner in last Sunday’s vote was the Partidul Socialiştilor din Republica Moldova (PSRM, Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova), formed in 1997 and a fringe party until it received an endorsement from Russian president Vladimir Putin. The Socialists will enter Moldova’s 101-member Parlamentul (parliament), with 25 seats, the largest of five parties in the chamber.


The Socialists benefitted chiefly from a decision on November 29 by Moldova’s supreme court of justice to uphold a lower court’s decision two days earlier to disqualify the pro-Russia ‘Homeland’ Party after it was found to have accepted foreign resources. Continue reading One solution to Moldova’s problems? Just join Romania.

Abe calls snap elections in Japan as recession returns


Barely hours after the news that Japan is entering a recession, with an annualized GDP drop of 7.3% in the second quarter and 1.6% in the third quarter, prime minister Shinzō Abe (安倍 晋三)  has announced snap elections that will be held sometime in mid-December.Japan

Ostensibly, Abe’s rationale is his determination to postpone the next installment of Japan’s consumption tax increase, which jumped from 5% to 8% in April and is set to rise further to 10% in 2015.

But that’s an obvious fig leaf — the consumption tax is the legacy of the opposition government that Abe defeated in his landslide victory in December 2012.

Instead, Abe hopes to maximize his government’s relative popularity and to take advantage of a scattered opposition to win a rapid mandate next month and extend the LDP’s control for another four years instead of waiting to face voters in 2015 or 2016, when the opposition could be stronger and when Abe’s policies might be even less popular. Abe also faces an internal LDP presidential election next year — it will be hard for rivals to attack Abe so soon after a successful election victory.

Ultimately, however, the election is also a referendum on ‘Abenomics,’ the most audacious experiment in neo-Keynesian economic policy today. Continue reading Abe calls snap elections in Japan as recession returns

Who is Yoichi Masuzoe?

yoichiTokyo certainly seems to have a fondness for electing colorful characters as its governors — and its newly elected governor appears like he will be no exception.Japantokyo

Yōichi Masuzoe (舛添 要), who easily won the Tokyo gubernatorial election on Sunday, first became well-known in the 1990s as a television commentator.  In 1998, he wrote a book, When I Put a Diaper on My Mother, which detailed the process of caring for his elderly mother and gave Masuzoe a platform to discuss health and aging in Japan.  That’s particularly relevant for Japan, which has the world’s second-highest median age (44.6, just 0.3 years higher than Italy), and where the population peaked at just over 128 million in 2010 in what demographers believe will be a massive depopulation over the coming decades.

Masuzoe (pictured above) first ran for the Japanese governorship in 1999, though he placed third with just 15.3% of the vote.  Elected to the House of Councillors, the upper house of the Diet (国会), Japan’s parliament, in 2001, Masuzoe rose through the LDP ranks.  He chaired a constitutional panel in 2006 that advocated amending Japan’s Article 9, thereby allowing the Japanese Self-Defese Forces to become a full army.  Shinzō Abe (安倍 晋三), who was then in his first stint as Japan’s prime minister, appointed Masuzoe as Japan’s minister for health, labor and welfare, a position he held between 2007 and 2009, when the LDP suffered its most severe postwar electoral defeat.

He left the LDP in 2010 to form the New Renaissance Party (新党改革) at a time when his national profile seemed to be rising.  But by the time a national election came along in December 2012, the LDP was set to win a landslide victory under Abe and his economic program, popularly dubbed ‘Abenomics.’  Eclipsed by the Japan Restoration Party (日本維新の会), a merger of the two new parties of Tokyo’s governor at the time, Shintaro Ishihara (石原 慎太郎), and Osaka’s young mayor, Tōru Hashimoto (橋下 徹), the New Renaissance Party failed to win a single seat.

Today, the Japan Restoration Party is setting its sights somewhat lower after a disappointing result in the July 2013 elections to the House of Councillors and a series of bad publicity for Hashimoto, who defended the use of ‘comfort women‘ by Japanese soldiers in World War II in May 2013, has called snap elections in Osaka, where he’ll stand for reelection after proposing the merger of Osaka’s city and prefectural governments.

But Masuzoe is today riding high — running as an independent with the support of the LDP and its conservative Buddhist ally, New Kōmeitō (公明党, Shin Kōmeitō), Masuzoe won the election in a near-landslide, garnering more than double the support of his nearest challenger, Kenji Utsunomiya (宇都宮 健児), a Japanese attorney and anti-nuclear activist, and the runner-up in Tokyo’s December 2012 gubernatorial election.   


In third place was the man who once threatened to knock Masuzoe from his frontrunner perch — Morihiro Hosokawa (細川 護煕), who served as prime minister between August 1993 and April 1994, leading the first non-LDP government since 1955.  Though he resigned over accusations of bribery, and thereupon left politics, the DPJ recruited him for the 2014 Tokyo race.

Though Hosokawa had the formal support of the DPJ and Masuzoe the formal support of the LDP, several top Democratic Party figures backed Masuzoe.  Junichiro Koizumi (小泉 純一郎), the LDP architect of economic reform in the 2000s, backed Hosokawa, in large part due to his anti-nuclear stance.

In contrast to Utsunomiya and Hosokawa, who pledged to limit spending on the 2020 Olympics and opposed a return to nuclear energy, Masuzoe supported return to nuclear energy and now stands a good chance of ushering Tokyo through to the 2020 Olympics with plenty of LDP patronage, though Masuzoe will face reelection in 2018.  Earlier Monday, Abe’s government appeared to push with renewed vigor to restore Japan’s nuclear power capability just three years after the Fukushima nuclear meltdown, and at times, the Tokyo gubernatorial race felt like a showdown between Abe and Koizumi, arguably the two most successful political figures in Japanese history of the past two decades.

The truth is that Tokyo voters weren’t thinking about the contest as a referendum on nuclear power, but competent city governance.  Abe, still basking in the success of his economic program (though that success may be somewhat less impressive than it was half a year ago), was always going to cast a large penumbra in the race.

Moreover, Utsunomiya and Hosokawa split the mostly anti-Masuzoe vote — had they united, they would have stood a strong chance at overtaking him, thereby denting the political invincibility that Abe and the LDP have enjoyed since December 2012.   The fourth-place candidate, Toshio Tamogami, a former general in the Self-Defense Forces, waged a largely nationalist, militaristic campaign, enough to win 12.4% of the vote that might have otherwise gone to Masuzoe.

Masuzoe expressed other odd views during the campaign — he indicated, rather bizarrely, that he didn’t believe women were capable of leading the country, inspiring an equally ‘sex boycott‘ among Tokyo women.

Back in Tokyo, Masuzoe is in good company historically though, given that the Tokyo governorship has attracted some of Japan’s most colorful politicians on the left and the right.

Continue reading Who is Yoichi Masuzoe?

Japan pushes forward with consumption tax hike


Earlier this month, Japanese prime minister Shinzō Abe (安倍 晋三) moved forward with plans to increase the top rate of Japan’s consumption tax from 5% to 8%, effective as of April 2014 — and he is expected to allow the rate to rise further to 10% in autumn 2015. Japan

It was the first major policy decision since Abe led his party, the long-dominant Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP, or 自由民主党, Jiyū-Minshutō) to a landslide victory in the July vote that elected one-half of the seats (121) in the House of Councillors, the upper house of Japan’s parliament, the Diet (国会).  That vote was essentially a referendum on Abe’s big-spending economic stimulus program — widely called ‘Abenomics’ — following Abe’s equally impressive victory in December 2012 in the elections for the House of Representatives, the Diet’s lower house.

It’s notable for three reasons. Continue reading Japan pushes forward with consumption tax hike

Putin ally Sobyanin holds on for full term as Moscow mayor in race against Navalny


In case you missed it (and there’s much more important news coming from Russia this week), Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin has won reelection heartily in what will be the biggest election this year in Russia.MoscowRussia Flag Icon

But don’t get your hopes up — Sobyanin’s reelection has long been certain since announcing what amounts to snap election earlier this summer.

Sobyanin, Moscow’s acting mayor since 2010 and formerly Russian president Vladimir Putin’s chief of staff, easily defeated opposition activist Alexei Navalny by a margin of 51.37% to 27.24%, just enough to avoid a runoff between the two candidates.

Sobyanin, who is Siberian (so not a native Muscovite), replaced longtime Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who was fired by then-president Dmitry Medvedev in October 2010.  Sobyanin has demonstrated more energy as Moscow’s new mayor, and many Muscovites compare him to Luzhkov in his first years as mayor in the early 1990s — Sobyanin has worked to install bike lanes, develop parks and reduce traffic congestion within Moscow.

So even while Navalny demands a recount of the vote (and it’s suspicious that Sobyanin won 1.37% more than he needed to avoid a direct runoff with Navalny), there’s a credible basis to the notion that Sobyanin commands the support of a majority of Muscovite voters.  Though there’s not much evidence of fraud in an election that had elements of competitiveness, Sobyanin’s campaign controlled the state media and used other advantages to enhance benefits of incumbency.

That hasn’t stopped Navalny, who is already demanding a runoff on the basis of alternative surveys of Sunday’s vote:

Exit polls conducted by the opposition leader’s campaign office suggest that Navalny has claimed 35.6 per cent of the vote, with Sobyanin receiving 46 percent. The opposition candidate announced that there will be a second round of voting in the mayoral election. He vowed to call on his supporters “to take to the streets” if it does not take place.

What’s most striking is that Navalny did so well — the 37-year-old blogger and anti-corruption crusader started off the race as an asterisk.  When the race began in June, Navalny was polling less than 10% in surveys, but that was before the Russian government harassed Navalny in myriad ways, most notably through a conviction of embezzlement on charges that Navalny stole around $500,000 out of a timber company in Kirov.  As a popular uproar against Putin surged in protest of what many Russian believe was a politically motivated trial, the government provisionally released Navalny, allowing him to continue his campaign.  But Navalny faces imprisonment if his conviction isn’t overturned, which could sideline him in Russia’s next legislative elections for the State Duma (Госуда́рственная ду́ма) in 2016 or even the next presidential race in early 2018.  Continue reading Putin ally Sobyanin holds on for full term as Moscow mayor in race against Navalny

Quivering for the fourth arrow of Abenomics (and other Japanese policy matters)


As widely expected, Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP, or 自由民主党, Jiyū-Minshutō) surged to an overwhelming victory in Sunday’s national elections in Japan to determine half of the seats (121) in the House of Councillors, the upper house of the Diet (国会).  While the victory wasn’t enough to give the LDP a two-thirds supermajority in both houses of the Diet, it was enough to usher in a new era of continuity, with the government of prime minister Shinzō Abe (安倍 晋三) set to consolidate power after winning election in the lower house, the House of Representatives, last December.Japan

The result leaves the LDP, together with its ally, the Buddhist conservative New Kōmeitō (公明党, Shin Kōmeitō) with a majority in the upper house, and that will give the LDP the ability to push through legislation without needing to compromise in the House of Councillors and it makes Abe the strongest Japanese prime minister since Junichiro Koizumi (小泉 純一郎) in the early 2000s and ends a seven-month period of a ‘twisted Diet,’ with control of the upper house still in the hands of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ, or 民主党, Minshutō).

But the LDP looked set to fall just below an absolute majority in its own right:


In contrast, the LDP holds 294 seats in the 480-seat House of Representatives, and together with the 31 seats of New Kōmeitō, holds a two-thirds majority.  That the LDP doesn’t hold an equally impressive advantage in the upper house is due to the fact that only half of the seats in the House of Councillors were up for election yesterday and, among those 121 seats, the LDP’s dominance is clear:


That also means that the Democratic Party doesn’t face an immediate wipeout, and it will remain the chief opposition party — in fact, their 59 seats in the House of Councillors is actually more than the 57 seats they currently hold in the House of Representatives.  That will give the DPJ a legislative base from which it can attempt to rebuild itself as a political force and to position itself for 2016, when Japan’s next elections are likely to come.  Banri Kaieda, a fiscal hawk who assumed the party’s leadership after its December 2012 defeat, will stay on for now as leader.

But the Democrats weren’t the only losers on Saturday.  It was perhaps an even more difficult election for the Japan Restoration Party (日本維新の会, Nippon Ishin no Kai).  A merger between the two smaller parties of Osaka mayor Tōru Hashimoto (橋下徹) and right-wing, nationalist former Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara (石原慎太郎), it emerged with 54 seats in the House of Representatives in December to become as the third-largest party.  But it won just eight seats on Saturday, and the party now seems likely to split up.  That’s largely due to Hashimoto’s awkward comments suggesting U.S. soldiers in Okinawa should be permitted to use prostitutes and controversial comments that largely defended the ‘comfort women’ system, whereby Japanese soldiers forced women in enemy countries to serve as sexual slaves.  But it’s also due to the fact that nationalist tensions stemming from a standoff with the People’s Republic of China over the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu Islands in Chinese) have calmed somewhat since last December.

One success story was the Japanese Communist Party (JCP, or 日本共産党, Nihon Kyōsan-tō), which won eight seats on Saturday, bringing its total to 11. Founded in 1922, the JCP has not been a strong force in recent years.  Though it has left its Marxist roots in the past, it has gained a modest amount of strength since the 2008 global financial crisis and it supports ending Japan’s military alliance with the United States.

But beyond the horse-race dynamics of Saturday’s result, what can we expect from Japanese policy in the next three years?  Here’s a look at eight key issues that are likely to dominate the LDP’s agenda, at least in the near future.  Continue reading Quivering for the fourth arrow of Abenomics (and other Japanese policy matters)

Will the real Japanese opposition please stand up? (Hint: It’s all about the factions.)


Four years ago, Japan looked like it had finally moved toward a truly competitive party system after years of virtual one-party rule by the dominant Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP, or 自由民主党, Jiyū-Minshutō).Japan

But after a landslide LDP victory last December ushered former prime minister Shinzō Abe (安倍 晋三) back into office, the LDP once again controls over two-thirds of the seats in the House of Representatives, the lower house of Japan’s Diet (国会).  After Sunday’s House of Councillors elections, the LDP is overwhelmingly expected to re-take control of the upper house from the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ, or 民主党, Minshutō), giving Abe a much easier time in implementing policy, likely for the next three years.  The LDP might well even find that it controls over two-thirds of the upper house as well.

Abe (pictured above) swept into power, nearly decimating the DPJ that had governed Japan from 2009 through last December, on a platform of massive monetary and fiscal intervention to boost the Japanese economy in what’s become known as ‘Abenomics.’  With approval ratings over 70%, Abe seems to have succeeded, at least in the short-term, in boosting confidence in his party and his ability to stimulate Japan’s economy after over two decades of deflation and low growth.

Critics fear, however, that if Abe controls a two-thirds majority in the House of Councillors as well, he’ll be in a position to push through amendments to Japan’s constitution, potentially paving the way for a controversial push for a more militarized Japan in the future.

Things are looking decidedly bleak for the Democratic Party.  Although only half of the seats in the House of Councillors are up for reelection, the DPJ’s grasp on power there is extremely narrow — it holds 106 seats to 83 seats for the LDP and 19 seats for the LDP’s more conservative, Buddhist ally, New Kōmeitō (公明党, Shin Kōmeitō).  Moreover, the Democratic Party would have been playing defense in this year’s elections regardless of its dwindling popularity — it will be defending 44 seats and other opposition parties will be defending 26 seats, while the LDP will be defending just 34 seats and New Kōmeitō will be defending just 10.

None of Japan’s other third parties seem capable of breaking through either.  The one party that seemed to have some momentum in December’s elections was the Japan Restoration Party (日本維新の会, Nippon Ishin no Kai), a merger between Osaka mayor Tōru Hashimoto (橋下徹) and right-wing, nationalist former Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara (石原慎太郎).  In particular, it was the youthful Hashimoto’s charisma that seemed to propel the party to win 54 seats in the House of Representatives last December, giving it nearly as many seats as the DPJ (which fell back to just 57 seats).  But the party’s fortunes have collapsed over Hashimoto’s comments indicating that U.S. soldiers in Okinawa should be allowed to use prostitutes and that ‘comfort women’ — civilians that Japanese soldiers forced into sexual slavery during World War II — were a necessary evil at the time.

Polls indicate that virtually no party can stop the LDP’s projected sweep — one representative poll earlier this week indicated that the LDP would win 43% and New Kōmeitō would win 8%, while the Democratic Party, the Japan Restoration Party and two other third parties, the liberal reformist Your Party and the Japanese Communist Party would each win just 6%.  That result would essentially thrust Japan back to its norm of one-party rule, leaving the Democratic Party potentially permanently shattered and permitting Abe to push forward with a pro-nuclear energy policy (still controversial after the 2011 Fukushima meltdown) and otherwise implementing a more nationalist Japan.

Or would it? Continue reading Will the real Japanese opposition please stand up? (Hint: It’s all about the factions.)