Election Preview: Japan 2009
Japan goes to the polls exactly one week from today – on August 30, 2009 – to elect the 480 members of the Japanese lower house, the House of Representatives or Diet. The lower house is more powerful than its counterpart, the House of Councillors. For example, the Diet can overturn a negative vote in the upper house by a two-thirds majority and, in addition, the upper house can only delay but not block the passage of a treaty, budget or the election of the Prime Minister.
The House of Representatives has 480 members, 300 of which are elected by FPTP in single-member constituencies while the remaining 180 are elected by proportional representation in 11 electoral blocks. The 180 PR seats are known as the “block seats” as opposed to the FPTP “local seats”. This system passed in 1994 and was first used in 1996. Prior to that, Japan elected all members of the lower house by SNTV, a rather rare electoral system. SNTV lives on in some local elections in Japan.
The current Japanese political scene is dominated by two major parties, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the Democratic Party (DPJ). The Liberal Democratic Party, which has been in power with few interruptions since 1955, when it was founded by the merger of the Liberal and Democratic parties to oppose the left-wing opposition, the Japanese Socialist Party (JSP) and the Communist Party (JCP). The LDP, a right-wing conservative party is a coalition of big business interests, small businesses, agricultural, urban professionals and lobbyists of all sorts. This coalition is a major reason why the LDP is well known for its culture of corruption at all levels. The DPJ was founded in 1998 by various small anti-LDP parties, and the DPJ quickly supplanted the older Socialists as the main opposition to the LDP. The DPJ has little in the way of ideology, and it is more of a big tent party for everybody opposed to the LDP. That means, it can include genuine reformists who are opposed to the corruption and patronage system, but also former LDP politicians who lost out in leadership battles in the LDP. However, I suppose the DPJ could be classified as a centrist liberal party, with social democratic and more neoliberal factions.
The LDP’s eternal coalition partner is the New Komeito Party (NKP), which is a Buddhist-influenced social conservative, but pretty centrist outside of its clericalism.
The Communist Party (JCP) is Japan’s only party which existed before World War II, being founded in 1922. The JCP is strongly supportive of Japan’s constitutionally-mandated neutrality and is opposed to American presence in Japan. However, the JCP is a mainstream left-wing party, being historically opposed to the Soviet Union (its opposition to the USSR prevented it from going the way of irrelevance like most pro-Moscow Communist parties did in Europe). The JCP runs candidates in almost all local seats and it also often provides the sole alternative in gubernatorial elections in which the major parties back a common candidate to ensure that both are in the ruling coalition.
The Social Democratic Party (SDP) is the the piteous remains of the old Socialist Party, formed mostly by the Socialist Party’s old left-wing. The marginalized SDP is quite left-wing, considered by some to be to the left of the JCP.
A flurry of new parties have been appearing recently, most of them being right-wing parties formed by the LDP dissidents, many of which were opposed to former LDP Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s Japan Post privatization (which led to the 2005 snap election). These personalist parties, which are all People’s parties and all New, include the People’s New Party (PNP – the strongest of them), the New Party Nippon (NPN) and the New Party Daichi (NPD).
The results of the snap 2005 election, called by Koizumi, after his drive to privatize Japan’s postal service failed in the upper house, are shown below. The PV results are from the proportional vote.
LDP 38.2% (+3.3%) winning 296 seats (+60)DPJ 31.0% (-6.4%) winning 113 seats (-64)
New Komeito 13.3% (-1.5%) winning 31 seats (-3)
Communist Party 7.3% (-0.4%) winning 9 seats (±0)
SDP 5.5% (+0.3%) winning 7 seats (+1)
People’s New Party 1.7% winning 4 seats
New Party Nippon 2.4% winning 1 seat
New Party Daichi 0.6% winning 1 seat
Independents winning 18 seats (+1)
LDP-New Komeito 51.5% (+1.8%) 327 seats (+57)
In the vote for the 300 local seats, the LDP won 48% of the vote against 36.4% for the DPJ and 7.2% for the JCP. The LDP won 219 seats against a mere 52 for the DPJ, 18 for the New Komeito, 18 for other parties and 1 for the SDP. A map of this lopsided result is shown below:
Overall, the LDP and New Komeito won 68% of the seats, assuring them a “super-majority” in the lower house – or the two-thirds of the seats required to override upper house opposition. Koizumi remained Prime Minister until September 2006, at which time Shinzo Abe became Prime Minister, a post he held for exactly one year. Yasuo Fukuda succeeded him, but he resigned about a year later leading to the election of the Catholic (quite rare in Japan) conservative traditionalist Taro Aso as Prime Minister. Shinzo Abe presided over the LDP’s defeat in the 2007 upper house election, in which the DPJ won nearly 40% of the vote against 28% for the LDP.
The LDP and the New Komeito seem likely to keep their coalition together, though New Komeito suggested in past years that it is open to working with the DPJ too. The DPJ’s coalition includes the SDP, the PNP, and Your Party – another recent LDP splinter. The DPJ, despite some tough times recently due to a leadership crisis and the honeymoon period for new Premiers (which didn’t last – Aso has a 70-65% disapproval rating) is on track to win an historic victory next week, winning a landslide and defeating the LDP. It is very likely the LDP-led coalition will also lose the popular vote to the DPJ, which is also quite historic. Polls give the DPJ around 40-45% in opinion polls, far ahead of the LDP, which is between 20 and 25% in polls. Seat projections agree that the DPJ is heading for a landslide win, probably with a majority. Most numbers for the DPJ seem to be in the 300 range, which would give them a large majority (241 seats is a bare majority). In the local seats, the DPJ could win over 200 of the 300 local seats, therefore repeating the 2005 election local results – but the other way around. This swing seems to be quite universal, including in the LDP’s rural strongholds but also in major cities.
Observing Japan, an excellent source for analysis, predicts that the DPJ will win 297 seats (-184) against 159 (-137) for the LDP. It also predicts the New Komeito will win a bare 15 (half of its 2005 result), the JCP and PNP 7 each (a loss of 2 for the Communists but a gain of 3 for the PNP), the SDP 5 seats (-2), Your Party 3 seats, LDP Independents 3 seats and the remaining DPJ-affiliated others two seats. This would give the DPJ’s coalition 314 seats, short of the two-thirds majority – which would be barely attainable with LDP Independent and Communist support. Yukio Hatoyama, the leader of the DPJ, is therefore the most likely Prime Minister. Definitely, a new era seems to be coming in Japan, with the government having a clear mandate for change – unlike in 1993.