Streltsov Dmitry. Elections to the Upper House in Japan
24.07.2013 г.

Elections to the Upper House in Japan

Dmitry Streltsov

On July 21 elections to the Upper House of Parliament have been held in Japan. At stake were 121 seats - exactly a half of the House of Councillors' list, put under scrutiny every three years. The vacancies were claimed by 433 candidates from almost a dozen political parties.

As it had been expected, the elections brought victory to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which won 65 seats. As a result, the ruling coalition of the LDP and the Komeito party will possess in the Upper House a comfortable majority of 135 seats. Thus, the main objective for the LDP has been achieved: all legislative initiatives of the Cabinet are guaranteed to gain support in both Houses of Parliament, allowing the ruling party to ignore the opinion of the opposition. This means that the situation of ‘twisted Parliament', in which two chambers are controlled by opposing political forces, is not to resume for at least the next three years.

However, the maximum program, which sought to secure the LDP a qualified majority of two thirds in the upper House, was not implemented. Such a majority is in need for the LDP to carry out a constitutional reform, which is an important part of the political agenda of the Abe Cabinet. The LDP will not be able to push through the Upper House the amendments to the Constitution, even with the support of the parties holding a similar position on the constitutional reform - Yours' Party and the Restoration Party.

Japan's main political parties built their election campaigns in a different way. The Liberal Democrats made a bet on the success of Abenomics - the policy of active stimulation of the economy through massive public investment to the infrastructure, intensive increase of the money supply as a means of combating deflation, keeping artificially low bank lending rates etc.

As for the opposition parties, they met the election in the state of chaos and disorder. It was clear from the outset that the opposition would not be able to pose a real threat to the LDP in each of the thirty-one single member prefecture constituencies. All it could do was to try to win the second and the subsequent seats in multi-member districts of the most populated prefectures - Tokyo, Osaka, Kanagawa, Chiba etc.

The largest opposition Democratic Party of Japan reached the election in an unfair condition, still not recovering from the crushing defeat in the December 2012 elections to the Lower House. The main problems for the party were created by the low popularity of its leader Banri Kaieda, as well as the lack of a consolidated position on many pressing issues on the political agenda. The DPJ remains a friable conglomeration of several internal groups with different ‘pedigree', demonstrating diametrically opposite views on such important issues as Japan's membership of TPP, socio-economic policy, tax reform, foreign policy and security.

Moreover, mindful of the election defeat in December, in which voters had recalled the Democrats' unfulfilled campaign promises, the DPJ this time preferred not to specify in its program any digital guidelines, thus limiting itself to abstract declarations. The main emphasis was placed on social welfare of citizens, gender equality, public support of families with children, education programs etc. However, the lack of specificity in the program and the inexpressiveness of the personality appearance of the party became a negative factor deterring many potential voter. Even on the future of nuclear power the DPJ did not take an unequivocal position - it appears that the party failed to come to a consensus on the issue.

The DPJ's goal was to prevent an excessive drop in the level of its representation in the Upper House, similar to what happened in 2012. However, the party could not avoid a crushing defeat, which was not a surprise to anyone - it won only 17 seats. Even in the proportional representation district, where the DPJ positions have traditionally been strong, Democrats received only 7 seats - the worst figure since the foundation of the party in 1998. However, holding the mandates recruited in the 2010 election, the DPJ still retains in the Upper House the second after the ruling LDP largest faction of 59 seats, remaining the largest opposition party.

Even greater precariousness can be seen in the election results for the Japan Restoration Party which had pinned hope as the backbone of the so-called ‘third pole' - the party gained only 8 seats. After the dubious statements of its leader Toru Hashimoto who had actually justified the sexual exploitation of Korean women by the Japanese soldiers during the Second World War, the party's initially high ratings have sharply declined. Another problem for the JRP was that after the merger with the party of nationalistically minded politician Shintaro Ishihara the party drove to the right, repelling many potential voters with center-left views. Generally speaking, the Japanese political scene for the last year witnessed the strengthening of the right part of the political spectrum - the activity of nationalists increased both in the LDP and the JRP. On the other hand, the DPJ failed to promote the brand of a social-democratic party, sticking itself to amorphous declarations clear of any ideological connotation. In these circumstances, some voters disillusioned with the ‘system parties', have chosen to vote for the Communists, who obtained the right to initiate legislation in the Upper House after winning 8 seats in the elections (totally 11 mandates in the House).

One can see several reasons for the victory of the LDP. First, a significant role was played by the effect of expectations. Abenomics has not yet lost its attractiveness as an effective recipe to pull the economy out of crisis. Indeed, in the first six months of Abe Cabinet in power, the economy has shown a moderate growth, there was an influx of foreign investment, and the overvalued yen hindering the development of export industries fell markedly against the US dollar. After a long period of economic stagnation, many voters voted for the LDP placing their credit to the course of the new premier.

Second, the kaleidoscopic change of cabinets for the last few years and the situation of permanent political crisis born by the ‘twisted parliament' caused irritation in the Japanese society. In one of the polls on the eve of the election, 65% of respondents said that would vote for the LDP because ruling party block must have a majority in the upper House.

Third, the factor of divided opposition was also important. The DPJ failed to restore confidence in society, while the ‘third pole' forces have proved unable to overcome internal frictions. For example, the Yours' Party declined to engage in electoral cooperation with the JRP discredited by the statements of its leader.

It is difficult to assess unambiguously the outcome of the election, seemingly predictable. Of course, Japan is on the verge of the long-awaited period of political stability, which can be considered a positive result. However, a carte blanche given to the Abe Cabinet out of the hands of voters can do it a disservice - in the absence of real instruments of deterrence by the opposition, the Government risks to lose feedback from the society, and many of its radical initiatives, which in other situation would have been blocked, will now get a green light. Meanwhile, many experts now speak of the serious risks posed by Abenomics - the uncontrolled inflation, the snowballing growth of public debt, the largest in the world in terms of GDP, the growth of social contrasts etc. In addition, the Cabinet has not yet decided how it intends to address long-standing problem of ineffective economic governance, absence of free market competition, preferential support by the government of particular corporate interests, excessive regulation etc. Against this background, further political development will depend on the concrete results of the economic policy of the government, and also on whether the DPJ will be able to overcome internal contradictions and consolidate itself as a viable social-democratic alternative to the conservative rule.