Unpacking the Japanese upper house election: Winner… the Communist Party?
TOKYO–One half of the 242 seats in the Japanese House of Councillors are contested every three years for six-year terms. However, much of the drama has been drained out of the election now slated for July 10 as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has ruled out dissolving the House of Representatives for a double election.
Thanks to a landslide victory in the 2013 election, there is virtually no chance that the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its junior coalition partner Komeito will lose its upper house majority. Even if it does (almost certainly triggering Abe’s resignation), the replacement will follow similar domestic and external policies, supported by a lower house super majority to override the upper house if need be.
There is even less chance that the ruling coalition will win enough seats for an upper house super majority. That is unfortunate for the LDP, which has been committed since its founding in 1955 to amending the current constitution adopted during the Allied occupation after WW II. A super majority vote in each of the two houses is necessary to put a constitutional amendment to a simple-majority national referendum.
LDP super majority?
There’s an outside chance that Abe could secure a super majority that resembles the landslide victory of 2013 with the help of two small conservative parties in the opposition. But there’s plenty of downside risk there for Japan and, ultimately, for the LDP and the ruling coalition.
Efforts to amend the constitution will siphon away valuable political capital and legislative time and space from structural reform efforts needed to re-energize the flagging third Abenomics arrow. The complications will be heightened because the collaboration for an amendment will be particularly awkward. Komeito is essentially the political wing of the pacifist lay Buddhist organization Sokagakkai, while one of the two conservative parties is further to the right than the LDP.
Since the Sokagakkai is essential to the LDP’s electoral fortunes as well, any consensus will fall well short of what Abe actually wants, starting with any tinkering with Article 9 — which outlaws war as a means to settle international disputes. Perhaps it is for Abe’s own good, then, that he is somewhat less popular than he was in 2013 — with some of the quantitative easing fairy dust worn off from Abenomics — and that the opposition is better organized than it was in 2013. But it is this last point that has the potential to change the political landscape to a true two-party system for good.
Katsuya Okada, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which most recently interrupted the LDP’s 7 decades-and-counting near-monopoly of power during 2009-2012, has managed to forge an agreement under which four opposition parties will field a single candidate in all 32 single-seat (prefectural/bi-prefectural) districts. (41 seats are contested in 4-12 seat prefectural proportional vote districts with each, and 48 seats in a national proportional vote.) This is important because vote-splitting among the opposition candidates was an important reason why the LDP won 29 out of the then 31 single-seat contests in the 2013 election.
JCP in coalition
One should also note the inclusion of the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) in the coalition. The JCP has historically fielded candidates in most single-seat districts, sopping up 10 percentage points, give or take a few, from mainstream opposition candidates who have better chances of defeating their LDP (or Komeito) rivals. The LDP, in contrast, has been able to rely on the 10 percentage point-plus in Sokagakkai votes in single-seat districts that are thrown their candidates’ way.
The JCP helps neutralize the handicap. This is not only because of the votes that it commands, but also because of the likely uptick in interest from the independent voters, who are more likely to turn out to vote for the opposition instead of abstaining due to apathy. Collaboration will be even more effective in lower house elections, where 289 of 465 seats will be fought in single-seat districts in the next general election. Such contests could be held at any time until the current term expires in December 2019, three months after Abe’s current and presumably final term as LDP head and prime minister ends.
However, all is not coming up roses for the opposition parties, particularly for the DPJ. For now, railing against the “war” legislation suffices as a rallying point. But a more enduring coalition will require a broader policy agreement that pushes the DPJ to the left, a development that will be particularly problematic for the Japan-US alliance. This will marginalize some of the DPJ’s top leaders and scare way its more conservative supporters, with serious potential for a schism.
Amid such a scenario, it is the JCP that has no downside. If the opposition makes significant headway, the JCP will be on track for a role much like Komeito, only for a center-left coalition in a bid for power. And if the coalition loses, it can go back to its role as the spoiler and last refuge for committed anti-establishment voters on the left.
Jun Okumura is currently a visiting scholar at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs. He is a 30-year veteran of the Japanese civil service. During his career with the Ministry of Trade, Economy and Industry, he took part in several bilateral and multilateral negotiations, including UNCLOS II and and the Uruguay Round as the lead METI negotiator for trade in services. He headed METI’s Trade Finance Division during the Asian financial crisis. As president of JETRO New York, he worked with the Japanese consulate and business community to assist evacuated businesses and their employees in the aftermath of Sept. 11 2001.
The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.