What will the Japanese upper house elections mean for Abe?

Asia Politics Uncategorized World

Author: Ko Maeda, University of North Texas

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition will likely lose seats in the upper house elections on 21 July 2019. This is simply because it won big six years ago. In 2013, Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) won 65 out of the 121 seats up for election — the biggest win by any party since 1992 — and its coalition partner Komeito won 11. Repeating this level of success will be difficult given that the Abe cabinet’s approval rating is much lower than it was in 2013 and the LDP won 55 seats in 2016.

Japanese Prime Minister and leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Shinzo Abe raises his hands with his party candidate Keizo Takemi (L) at a campaign for the July 21 Upper House election in Tokyo on Sunday 7, July, 2019. (REUTERS/Yoshio Tsunoda)

Japanese Prime Minister and leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Shinzo Abe raises his hands with his party candidate Keizo Takemi (L) at a campaign for the July 21 Upper House election in Tokyo on Sunday 7, July, 2019. (REUTERS/Yoshio Tsunoda)

Japan’s upper house renews half of its 242 seats every three years as its members serve six-year terms. But it will add 3 more seats after these elections which will elect 124 members and the total will go up to 248 in 2022. The elections are conducted in a two-tiered system and each voter casts two ballots. One ballot is for a nation-wide proportional representation (PR) tier that fills 50 members. The other is for a nominal tier that elects 74 seats from 45 districts, where the number of members elected from each district varies from one to six, roughly based on its population.

The LDP currently has a slim single-party majority in the upper house that it will likely lose in the coming elections. It should be easy for the LDP–Komeito coalition to maintain its majority — together the two parties need to win 53 out of 124 seats. In the absence of a shock event before the election, Abe’s position will remain secure and he will become the longest-serving prime minister in the country’s history on 20 November.

Yet the so-called ‘Year of the Boar effect’ poses an ominous challenge for the LDP. The LDP’s vote share tends to plunge every 12 years when upper house elections are held in the same year as synchronised nation-wide local elections. The conventional explanation is that LDP local politicians and activists are tired after local elections in the spring and do not campaign as hard in the lead up to the upper house elections in the summer. Indeed, 12 years ago the LDP suffered a major defeat in the 2007 upper house elections that effectively ended Abe’s first stint as prime minister.

The good news for the LDP this time is that, unlike 12 years ago when the Democratic Party of Japan was the main opposition party, the anti-LDP camp has now fragmented into many parties. The Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan led by Yukio Edano is the largest opposition party, but not by a large margin.

For this election, opposition parties have coordinated candidate nominations in all the single-seat districts so that each district has only one opposition candidate. But they will be competing against each other, as well as the LDP, in other districts and in the PR tier. When a country’s opposition is fragmented, less anti-government voting occurs.

An uncertain element in the upcoming elections is a new party launched by Taro Yamamoto. The 44-year-old was an actor who turned into an anti-nuclear power activist after the 2011 triple disaster. Yamamoto won a seat in the upper house in 2013 and has since received media attention for his outsider-style political activities and harsh criticism of Abe and the LDP.

His party started soliciting donations at the start of April and raised more than 200 million yen (US$1.85 million) as of late June. It is unclear if Yamamoto’s movement will hurt the LDP by increasing the turn out of voters who are not satisfied with the existing parties or damage the opposition by further fragmenting anti-LDP votes.

A major policy issue on the agenda is a sales tax hike from 8 to 10 per cent scheduled for 1 October 2019. Opposition parties have argued against it and tried to appeal to voters on this issue. The ruling parties maintain that the hike is necessary and promise to implement measures to mitigate negative impacts on the economy.

On 26 June, Abe emphasised that constitutional revision — his long-cherished goal — is an important issue for this election. He presumably wants to divert voters’ attention away from the sales tax and other policy issues and appeal instead to his core support base.

For a constitutional revision, Abe needs a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Diet and a simple majority in a national referendum. The ruling coalition currently controls a two-thirds majority in the lower house. It has a slim two-thirds majority in the upper house if the seats of other pro-revision forces, namely the Japan Innovation Party (JIP), are included.

As the coalition is expected to reduce its seats and the JIP is not polling well, maintaining a two-thirds majority in the upper house is unlikely. Further, Komeito, whose support base is mostly against a constitutional revision, possesses substantial power within the coalition despite its small size.

To avoid becoming a lame duck, Abe will probably reinvigorate his quest for a constitutional revision after this election. Yet, it is not likely that the LDP’s revision plan can pass through the Diet, at least in its current form.

Ko Maeda is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science, the University of North Texas.