Author: Purnendra Jain, University of Adelaide
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and junior ally Komeito secured a solid majority in the House of Councillors — Japan’s Upper House of the National Diet — at the first Reiwa-era national election held in July 2019. This gives Abe an unprecedented sixth consecutive electoral win — three Lower House and three Upper House — since he came to power a second time in 2012.
Abe will almost certainly become the longest serving prime minister in Japan’s parliamentary history, breaking the records of prime ministers Taro Katsura in pre-war and Eisaku Sato in post-war Japan.
Upper House elections rarely attract international media attention as this house is not as significant as the Lower House either in legislative and budgetary matters or in forming government. Yet it can often play a crucial role. After the 2007 Upper House elections, Abe resigned due to his party’s poor performance. This led to an unstable five years in Japanese politics with the transfer of power from the LDP to the Democratic Party of Japan in 2009 and prime ministers changing annually until Abe’s return in 2012.
The 2019 elections were held in the Year of the Boar, a 12-year cycle in the Japanese calendar system. The Year of the Boar typically results in a lower voter turnout and electoral predictions become a little more difficult as it is preceded by quadrennial nation-wide local elections for thousands of legislators and local chief political executives. The 2019 Upper House elections recorded the second lowest turnout (49.2 per cent) after 1995’s 44.5 per cent — another Year of the Boar. But this time, Abe successfully beat the odds.
The LDP and Komeito secured a total of 141 seats in the 245-member Upper House. But this is insufficient for Abe’s long-time political project of amending the constitution, one of the six pillars of the LDP’s 2019 electoral manifesto. Abe’s dream of amending the constitution by 2020 seems dead in the water unless he can convince opposition MPs to defect while also overcoming Komeito’s hesitancy.
Still, Abe did not anticipate his coalition winning enough seats to form a two-thirds majority in the Upper House. He set his target at 53 seats, which added to the 70 uncontested seats would bring the total to 123 seats. Abe has thus claimed victory by stating ‘this Upper House election was not about winning two-thirds of the seats, it was about maintaining stability. We achieved that goal’.
Abe and his team intentionally set a low target due to unresolved issues of alleged corrupt practices involving Abe. He also denied responsibility when a possible shortfall in the national pension funds emerged. The Abe government’s decision to increase the consumption tax from 8 per cent to 10 per cent from October 2019 also made him unpopular.
It seems though that Abe’s strong emphasis on the importance of political stability trumped those issues. Voters decided against creating an unstable political environment and a twisted Diet that prevailed in the recent past and paralysed the legislative process.
While an array of difficult domestic issues remain unresolved, Abe also faces numerous diplomatic challenges ahead. He has made little progress on the Northern Territories issue with Russia and the abduction issue with North Korea. US pressure on Japan on trade issues is likely to increase despite Abe boasting of his skilful dealings with US President Donald Trump.
So far Abe has managed these tensions in bilateral relations and has projected himself as a tough negotiator. But he has been unsuccessful in resolving any of them. Managing diplomatic tensions is different from resolving them. More recent tensions over Tokyo’s export restrictions on high-tech materials to South Korea also have no resolution in sight.
Even though Abe and his government face difficult domestic and diplomatic challenges, weak political opposition in Japan offers no real alternative to Abe and the LDP.
The largest opposition, the Constitutional Democratic Party, made some gains in the Upper House election. Among the seats being contested this time it almost doubled its strength from 9 to 17 seats. Including those seats not up for election in this triennial round, the CDP now holds a total of 32. But this is nowhere near the combined strength of the LDP and Komeito, rendering the opposition almost ineffective in Diet proceedings.
So where is Japan’s politics headed? Abe will continue in his position until his current term ends in September 2021, but there is no clear succession or leadership renewal plan beyond that. Although unprecedented and unlikely at this stage, the prospects for another change to the LDP’s party rules and a fourth-term for Abe as party president have been played down but not definitively ruled out.
The LDP’s comeback with Abe as Prime Minister put an end to expectations for a two-party system in Japanese parliamentary politics. Japan has returned to a single-party dominant system with a weak and divided opposition lacking long-terms plans to challenge the LDP. This is bad news for democracy. But until opposition parties get their act together and offer attractive policies, the LDP is in for the long haul — with or without Abe.
Purnendra Jain is Professor at the Department of Asian Studies, the University of Adelaide.