Upper house elections were held in Japan on July 21, 2013. The upper house of Japan’s bicameral legislature, the National Diet (国会 Kokkai), is the House of Councillors (参議院 Sangiin), which is composed of 242 councillors serving six-term years, elected in staggered elections every three-years. Out of the 242 councillors, a total of 146 are elected in 47 prefectural constituencies (corresponding to Japan’s prefectures) and 96 are elected nationally by open-list proportional representation. Every three years, one half (121 seats) of the House of Councillors is renewed – 73 seats from the 47 prefectural constituencies, and 48 by nationwide open-list proportional representation. Each prefecture has a minimum of two councillors, with one elected every three years.
In this election, 31 councillors are elected by FPTP in ‘single-member’ prefectures. 20 councillors are elected in ten ‘two-member’ prefectures, nine are elected in three ‘three-member’ prefectures, eight are elected in two ‘four-member’ prefectures and five are elected in one five-member prefecture (Tokyo). Multi-member districts use the single non-transferable vote (SNTV) system, where voters have only one vote in a multi-member contest.
This electoral system significantly over-represents less populated rural areas, at the expense of more populated urban prefectures. The lower house of Japan’s Diet has the same problem, and voting disparities in general have been a persistent issue in Japanese politics since the 1960s; the lower house, until 1993, was apportioned on the basis of 1945 numbers! In March 2013, high courts across Japan ruled the 2012 lower house election unconstitutional, and the Supreme Court is due to rule on their decisions soon – with the risk that it could declare the 2012 election to be ‘invalid’, which would create a political crisis. There is therefore increased pressure on politicians to fix the electoral system, but there is deeply ingrained resistance to electoral reform within the political elites – especially within the ruling party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has long relied and continues to rely on support from older, rural voters. Some in the LDP understand the necessity of electoral reform, but by and large, the LDP has shown very little interest in electoral reform besides the bare minimum (eg: ensuring the Supreme Court doesn’t declare its 2012 victory ‘invalid’).
Like in many (most?) bicameral system, Japan’s upper house is the least powerful of the two houses. While both houses of the Diet must pass legislation, the lower house – the House of Representatives – has the final word on budgets, treaties and the designation of the prime minister, and it may override the upper house’s veto with a two-thirds majority of members present.
Last December, the right-wing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which had ruled Japan continuously between its foundation in 1955 and 1993 (and again between 1996 and 2009), regained power, only three years after it had suffered its worst electoral defeat in its history, at the hands of the vaguely centre-left Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). The DPJ’s victory could have ushered in a competitive two-party system, instead of the one-party dominant system which had managed to survive without too much damage even after 1993. However, the DPJ’s victory turned to be a mere flash in the pan, reflective more of the Japanese electorate’s remarkable fickleness in the twenty-first century than any fundamental political realignment.
In short, since the LDP’s right-wing reformist Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi retired in 2006, Japan has seen six Prime Ministers come and go (three from the LDP until 2009, then three from the DPJ until 2012), all of them bumbling their way through their short terms in office before being forced to resign. The DPJ did accomplish quite a few things, but it had the heavy burden of a sluggish economy and three Prime Ministers whose tenures were all quite unremarkable, even if these men had some personal qualities.
The 2012 election was more a repudiation of the DPJ than a mandate for the LDP, whose huge two-thirds majority owes more to the quirks of Japan’s parallel voting system (where the PR elements do not balance out FPTP’s disproportionalities) than to a popular vote landslide (which was barely better than its 2009 results…). Nevertheless, a landslide is a landslide and the LDP regained power. A former Prime Minister, Shinzō Abe, whose first term (2006-2007) is widely regarded as a failure, returned to his old office.
After six years of six unremarkable Prime Ministers, Shinzō Abe has turned out to be uncannily popular after some seven months in office. His approval ratings stand at about 60%, a change from the lows (20-30%) reached by his predecessors (and himself in 2007). Consumer and business confidence is high. The Tokyo stock exchange, the Nikkei, is at its highest level since 2008 after surging from December to May. The reason? Shinzō Abe’s economic agenda, nicknamed “Abenomics” is popular and inspiring confidence with the public and observers. After taking office, Abe announced an ambitious economic agenda aimed at escaping the deflation/low growth trap which Japan has been stuck in since 1991.
“Abenomics” has three components: a fiscal stimulus program, getting Japan’s central bank to inject money into the economy and set a hard target for inflation with loose monetary policies, and structural reforms.
Upon taking office, Abe announced a ¥10.3 trillion (about $100 billion) fiscal stimulus package. During the 2012 campaign, Abe had faulted the Bank of Japan for not setting a clear inflation target, and vowed that, once in office, he would force the central bank to do so and adopt looser monetary policies. True to his word, he appointed a new governor of the central bank. In April, the Bank of Japan set, as Abe wanted, a 2% inflation target and committed itself to pumping money into the economy. The central bank wants to double the monetary base through a programme of quantitative easing. As a result of the government’s first measures, growth has been up (3-4% so far in 2013) and the yen, Japan’s currency, has fallen, thereby boosting exports.
However, in a country whose gross debt is 240% of GDP, printing money and demand-side measures can only do so much. That is why a lot of those who welcomed Abe’s first measures have been pressing him to be bold and decisive with the third – and perhaps most important – part of his “Abenomics” agenda: structural reforms of the economy. The Japanese economy has been dogged, among other things, by an aging population which has meant that a lot of government spending goes towards social security and pensions. As a result of years of LDP rule and the LDP’s old “iron triangle” system (the party – the bureaucracy – big business and lobbies), a lot of sectors in Japan’s economy (agriculture, pharmaceuticals etc) are protected and uncompetitive. Given the continued importance of special interest groups (farmers, doctors, business) for the LDP, many have felt that Abe would be reluctant to announce anything too radical, lest it upset these powerful actors.
However, he surprised many when he announced, in March, that Japan would begin negotiations to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an American-led effort to liberalize trade in the region. The TPP had been an important issue in the 2012 campaign, and Abe had been fairly non-committal on the topic, not wanting to run the risk of upsetting farmers, who are opposed to the TPP and what it means in terms of trade and economic liberalization.
The structural reforms announced in June seem to have disappointed investors and business leaders, who had wanted Abe to announce some radical measures – for example, a labour reform which would allow firms to fire employees with severance pay (currently, firms are barred from firing staff employees), reforming corporate governance or allowing private companies to buy farmland. Instead, the government fell short of anything that far-reaching. It has announced only a few measures, none of them all that huge. It will lift the ban on the sale of drugs online, create a number of deregulated and lightly taxed zones and create a third category of contract workers. For investors and businessmen hoping for more, it fell short of their expectations. Partly as a result, the stock market, which had begun falling after six months of exuberance in mid-May, fell again in early June. The stock market has since been on the upswing again.
Optimistic voices say that Abe did not announce any radical measures in June because he was unwilling to take the risk of upsetting the fickle electorate before these upper house elections. Reformist voices in the LDP promise that there is more in store.
Shinzō Abe’s popular “shock and awe” economic policy, which has worked well so far, is quite a stark contrast with the Shinzō Abe who was a hapless and bumbling Prime Minister for a year between 2006 and 2007, before suffering a thumping in the 2007 upper house election. That Shinzō Abe had largely ignored economic issues, and gotten caught up in nationalist sabre-rattling. After years in the political wilderness, it appears that Abe has learned his lesson – the public doesn’t care much for aggressive nationalism and talking down Japan’s World War II atrocities, but does care a lot about the economy and is prone to love a leader who finally has a decisive economic agenda.
However, Abenomics goes hand-in-hand with national security issues, and with Abe’s goal of restoring Japan’s greatness. In 2010, China overtook Japan as the world’s second-largest economy, and China is intent on reclaiming the mantle of the leading Asian power from Japan, which had held it since the late 19th century. In late 2012, for example, China reasserted its claim to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands when a Chinese government aircraft entered Japanese-controlled airspace. Therefore, Abe and the LDP sees the restoration of Japan’s economic might as a precondition to regaining regional power and guarding off Chinese ambitions.
It seems quite clear that Abe remains a nationalist, whose controversial past (and current) statements worry more than a few people. His cabinet, for example, includes prominent nationalists who object to Japan’s so-called “apology diplomacy” (apologizing for atrocities committing during World War II) and who regularly visit the Yasukuni Shrine, where a number of war criminals are enshrined. The education minister, for example, wishes to retract Tomiichi Murayama’s 1995 gold-standard apology for wartime atrocities. The government is intent on amending Japan’s post-war constitution to revise Article 9, which outlaws war and bars Japan from maintaining military forces (Japan does have a military, but it is called the Self-Defense Force). In April, Abe questioned whether Japan’s wars in China and Asia between 1931 and 1945 could be defined as “aggression”. In May, the LDP’s policy chief said that Abe rejects the verdict of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, which blamed Japan for the war and sentenced its leaders to hang. In 2007, Abe had said that wartime comfort women were not coerced into becoming sex slaves for the imperial army. In general, Abe’s government continues to play up nationalistic values and ideals. These comments and threats, besides expressing historical negationism, also threaten regional security. For the moment, however, Abe understands that economics trumps all other issues.
Abe’s decisive and ambitious agenda is popular on its own, and the LDP is benefiting from that in the polls. However, it also helps that the LDP faces an exceptionally weak opposition. The DPJ, which governed between 2009 and December 2012, was crushed at the polls and has yet to rebuild itself. The controversial Ichirō Ozawa, who had contributed to rebuilding the DPJ prior to 2009, left the DPJ in 2012 and his personality cult outfit found itself utterly decimated at the polls in December. Yet, the DPJ’s new leader – Banri Kaieda – is fairly close to Ozawa. In opposition, the DPJ has been unsure of what to do with Abenomics – it has criticized it, but offers no alternative. Its attempts to focus on the rejection of nuclear power, one of the only issues where there is a visible difference with the LDP, have proven unfruitful. Anti-nuclear sentiments aren’t strong enough to trump confidence in Abenomics.
The December 2012 election saw another party emerge, quite forcefully – the right-wing nationalist Japan Restoration Party (JRP). The JRP won 20.5% of the PR vote in 2012, coming ahead of the DPJ, and ended up with 54 seats overall (only three less than the DPJ). However, the JRP’s success was not built on any solid roots – a lot of it was a personal vote for the party’s co-leader, Osaka mayor Tōru Hashimoto, and a lot of it was a protest vote from unhappy ex-DPJ supporters. Furthermore, the JRP was a hastily assembled party made up of two ambitious politicians Hashimoto and former Tokyo governor Shintarō Ishihara; disagreements and rivalries between the two men had already come out during the 2012 campaign.
In June, Tōru Hashimoto created a massive firestorm when he said that Japan’s ‘comfort women’ (sex slaves) during World War II were a ‘necessary evil’ (and further trivialized it by saying other countries practiced ‘sex on the battlefield’) and then invited American soldiers on Okinawa to make use of Japanese prostitutes. When he had the chance to clarify or apologize, he only doubled down on his statements. Although such comments on comfort women are unfortunately widespread on the Japanese right, his comments were denounced by a wide majority of politicians and the public. It seems to have torpedoed his rising star in politics, and created another firestorm within the JRP. Shintarō Ishihara, who is no less misogynistic than Hashimoto, called on him to apologize because it threatened to hurt the JRP.
In a preview of the upper house elections, the LDP won a landslide in the Tokyo prefectural elections at the end of June (the 2009 Tokyo elections had previewed the DPJ’s landslide in the general elections later that year). The LDP increased its vote share by 10% (from 26% to 36%) while the DPJ’s vote collapsed by over 25% (from about 41% to 15%) and placed fourth in terms of seats (behind the New Komeito and the Communists). The JRP did poorly, winning only 8% (it had won 20% in Tokyo in 2012) and 2 seats.
Clearly, these elections were quite important. To begin with, although the LDP and its New Komeito allies have a two-thirds majority in the lower house, the House of Councillors – whose members were elected in 2007 (a major DPJ victory) and 2010 (a DPJ-LDP draw) – is almost split down the middle between the LDP-New Komeito government and the opposition. Prior to the election, the DPJ held 86 seats against 102 for the governing parties; 13 seats were held by the right-libertarian Your Party, 8 were held by Ichirō Ozawa’s personality appreciation cult, 6 by the Communist Party (JCP), 4 by the anti-nuclear/anti-TPP Green Wind (another DPJ splinter), 4 for the Social Democrats (SDPJ), 3 for the JRP, 2 by the New Renaissance Party and 9 by independent members (including one DPJ and one LDP presiding officer). Of the members up for reelection on July 21, 44 were from the DPJ and 44 were from the LDP-NKP.
The basic goal for the LDP-NKP was to win at least 63 seats, allowing them to win an absolute majority in the upper house. However, given the strength of the LDP and the despondency of the opposition (particularly the DPJ), Abe hoped to win at least 70 seats, which would allow the government to dominate legislative committees. Constitutional amendments, such as changing Article 9 as Abe’s LDP would like to do, requires a two-thirds majority in both houses and a national referendum. Winning a two-thirds majority in the upper house was probably the government’s wet dream, but one which it was quite unlikely to achieve.
Turnout was 51.6% (57.9% in 2010, 59% in 2012), the lowest turnout in an upper house election since 1995. The 59% turnout in the 2012 election had been the lowest turnout in a lower house election since the Second World War. The public’s trust in politicians has declined significantly in recent years, and Shinzō Abe – while more popular than his predecessors – has not been able to change that. Additionally, as in 2012, it is likely that a number of anti-LDP/non-LDP voters opted to stay home rather than vote for the despondent opposition.
The results (preliminary) are as follows (popular vote is the PR list vote, compared to 2010):
LDP 34.68% (+10.61%) winning 65 seats (47 districts, 18 PR) >> total 115 seats (+31)
New Komeito 14.22% (+1.15%) winning 11 seats (4 districts, 7 PR) >> total 20 seats (+1)
DPJ 13.40% (-18.16%) winning 17 seats (10 districts, 7 PR) >> total 59 seats (-27)
JRP 11.94% (+9.83%) winning 8 seats (2 districts, 6 PR) >> total 9 seats (+6)
JCP 9.68% (+3.58%) winning 8 seats (3 districts, 5 PR) >> total 11 seats (+5)
Your Party 8.93% (-4.66%) winning 8 seats (4 districts, 4 PR) >> total 18 seats (+5)
SDP 2.36% (-1.48%) winning 1 seats (1 PR) >> total 3 seats (-1)
PLP 1.77% (+1.77%) winning 0 seats >> total 2 seats (-6)
NPD 0.98% (+0.98%) winning 0 seats >> total 0 seats (-1)
Greens 0.86% (+0.86%) winning 0 seats >> total 0 seats (nc)
Green Wind 0.81% (+0.81%) winning 0 seats >> total 0 seats (-4)
Happiness Realization Party 0.36% (-0.03%) winning 0 seats (nc) >> total 0 seats (nc)
Okinawa Social Mass Party winning 1 seat (1 district) >> total 1 seat (nc)
Independents winning 2 seats (2 districts) >> total 3 seats (-3)
LDP/NKP Government 48.9% (+11.76%) winning 76 seats >> total 135 seats (+32)
As expected, the LDP-NKP handily gained an absolute majority in the House of Councillors. Together, both parties will hold 56% of the seats. However, as was also to be expected, the LDP-NKP fell far short of winning a two-thirds majority. The gains necessary for the governing coalition to obtain a two-thirds majority were far too important; the LDP did about as well as it could in the one-member districts, but it is harder to make major gains in multi-member districts under SNTV.
The main use of the two-thirds majority would have been amending the constitution with more ease. With these numbers, however, it will be rather difficult for Abe to be able to change Article 9 of the constitution. Even with the addition of the JRP, the government would still far short of a two-thirds majority. At any rate, changing the constitution would still be easier said than done, even with good numbers. The prospect of changing Article 9 displeases South Korea and China, and the United States would likely pressure Tokyo out of doing anything which would destabilize regional politics. Additionally , the religious conservative New Komeito tends to be pacifist and most believe that it likely opposes opening the constitution to change Article 9. Furthermore, the LDP remains a coalition of different powerful factions, some of which are less nationalistic than Abe and his cabinet are.
Despite the very low turnout (and the utter weakness/near-decrepitude of the opposition), this remains a decisive victory for the LDP-NKP, arguably the first of the kind since Koizumi’s landslide victory in 2005. While they won a similar landslide in the 2012 election, it was only in terms of seats – the popular vote share for the LDP-NKP was hardly better than in 2009 and a far cry from Koizumi’s 51% in 2005. The low turnout shows that political apathy and distrust remain widespread in Japan, and a lot of the ‘floating voters’ which have decided elections since the Koizumi era aren’t any less fickle today. However, the LDP(-NKP)’s ability to win a decisive victory of this kind with such a high popular vote result (the LDP only won 27.8% of the PR vote in 2012) does show that at least some voters are convinced by Abe’s government seven months in. His ‘Abenomics’ program appears, to many voters, as one of the first decisive, ambitious and forward-looking government agendas to come out of Japanese politics since Koizumi’s right-reformist era. That being said, the LDP slightly underperformed expectations and last polls. Until June/July, the LDP was at 40-45% in polls, and the last polls showed them at 35-40% – keeping in mind that Japanese pollsters do not redistribute undecided voters. As could be expected, undecided voters broke in favour of the opposition parties. However, the LDP’s slight decline in polls since the beginning of the year might be a sign that Abenomics is showing its first strains. As aforementioned, the ‘third arrow’ (structural reforms) disappointed some reformist ardours, and the stockmarket declined in May-June from previous heights. Therefore, if Abenomics turns out to be unsuccessful, voters will show no mercy in punishing the LDP-NKP for their failures.
For the time being, however, the LDP is on the upswing. To begin with, the near entirety of the opposition is in a pitiful state of decrepitude. The DPJ did horribly, placing third in the PR vote. DPJ and non-LDP incumbents in single-member districts were almost all thrown out. In fact, the LDP won all but two of the 31 seats from the single-member districts. The only exceptions were Iwate, Ozawa’s home turf, where incumbent councillor Tatsuo Hirano (ex-DPJ turned independent) won reelection with 39.7% against 26.4% for the LDP and 14.9% for Ozawa’s cult (PLP); and Okinawa, where the non-DPJ left is quite strong (probably because of tensions related to the US base on the islands). In Okinawa, incumbent councillor Keiko Itokazu (from the small leftist local Okinawa Social Mass Party) defeated the LDP 51.1% to 45.4%. The DPJ, with a popular incumbent, came close in Mie (37.6% to 44.2%); similarly, a popular Green Wind (ex-DPJ) incumbent in Yamagata almost won reelection (44.6% to 48.2%). Otherwise, it was a LDP landslide in single-member seats, which are always the easiest to run away with. The DPJ was also crushed in a lot of multi-member districts. In Tokyo, the DPJ’s only candidate took only 9.8% (sixth, for five seats); the LDP took 2 seats, the NKP and Communists took one each and an anti-nuclear independent also won a seat (more bad news for the DPJ if they can’t even get anti-nuclear activists/voters for themselves). In Osaka, Saitama and Kyoto, the DPJ also failed to win any multi-member district seats. With such a terrible result, winning less than 20 seats and in third in PR (as in 2012), there will be some serious pressure on the DPJ to either reinvent itself or just disband itself. The DPJ is a shaky, vaguely left-of-centre coalition of old LDP opponents, LDP dissidents and other factions with diverging ideologies. It is not designed to be a weak and small opposition force.
The JRP did rather poorly, although slightly better than expected after their disastrous showing in the Tokyo prefectural elections in June. In large part, though, this probably owes a lot to a strong performance in Hashimoto’s Osaka stronghold – the JRP candidate topped the poll with 28.8%. It also won 26.1% in Hyogo Prefecture, which borders Osaka. The JRP’s star has certainly faded since December 2012, but it nevertheless remains a strong player in Japanese politics – although it would do well to avoid becoming a local-based party whose strength is concentrated in Osaka.
Low turnout favoured parties like the New Komeito and the Communists, who have a small base of loyal and motivated supporters, likely to turn out even in low turnout circumstances. The NKP won 14% and the Communists won 9.7%, their best result since 2000. The Communists managed to win district seats in Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto
Japanese politics remain, as always, unpredictable and subject to rapid change on the back of the electorate’s notorious fickleness. The LDP won a significant victory, and the opposition’s sad state is a major advantage for the party going forward. However, it does remain fairly clear that voters will show no remorse or mercy if Abe’s government became less popular. For now, the government has an ample majority in both houses, which would facilitate its governing agenda somewhat and could reinvigorate Abe’s reformist drive somewhat (if the LDP reads this as a mandate for Abenomics, which it probably should).