Author: Gregory W. Noble, University of Tokyo
Members of the House of Councillors, Japan’s upper house, serve six-year terms — and half of those seats are up for election every three years. 124 seats will be contested on 21 July, 74 from the 47 prefectural districts and 50 using proportional representation (PR). Will these elections pose an obstacle to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his ambitious agenda?
The combination of PR and the multi-member districts used in most constituencies leaves space for small Parties, resulting in a multi-Party system. The centre-right Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) dominated the Cabinet from its founding in 1955 until 1993, and then all but five years after that. Since Abe assumed the prime ministership in 2012, the LDP’s junior coalition partner has been Komeito, a small party affiliated with the Soka Gakkai sect.
On the centre-left are the Constitutional Democratic Party and the Democratic Party for the People. The Japanese Communist Party, two small centre-right regional groupings — Tokyoites First Party and Osaka-based Japan Innovation Party (Ishin) — and a smattering of micro-parties round out the field (notably missing are a Greens Party and strongly populist parties). Japan thus lacks a single, clear centre-left alternative to the LDP.
Political parties typically differentiate themselves based on identity, policies, and performance. Social identity, mediated by partisanship, is a crucial determinant of vote choice in the United States and many other countries. But it is conspicuously weak in Japan where major social cleavages such as ethnicity, language, and regionalism are lacking, and where even differences in social class and religion are relatively unimportant. Almost 60 per cent of survey respondents report that they support no particular party.
Policies also play a limited role in differentiating Japanese parties, as shown by the Asahi–Todai survey of Diet members. The main cleavage is over foreign policy and constitutional revision — the LDP and Ishin, reluctantly supported by Komeito, embrace the defence alliance with the United States and favour revising the constitution, ideally eliminating or neutering Article 9’s renunciation of war and aggressive use of military force. Parties also take contrasting stances on transitory issues such as increasing the consumption tax, legalising same-sex marriage or allowing couples to use separate surnames after marriage.
This year also features an implicit contest over female representation. Only 15 per cent of LDP candidates are women, while the centre-left parties have nominated far more in line with a recent law urging gender equality in political representation. But as in previous elections, parties are not that far apart on most domestic issues. If anything, on taxes, social welfare, and restarting nuclear power plants, the public agrees more with the centre-left than the LDP.
Since policy differences are modest, parties compete primarily over claims about performance — the ability to attain widely-shared goals such as a sound economy, minimal corruption, and coping effectively with natural disasters or foreign threats. On performance issues the LDP enjoys three immense structural advantages — association with the glory days of the rapid growth period; the backing of the United States; and familiarity.
In contrast, the centre-left can claim no association with good times and suffers from three equally immense liabilities — a sad record of infighting and ineffectiveness during its stint in power from 2009–2012; the suspicion of the United States; and the extraordinary bad luck to be in office during the triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown in 2011.
Electoral context can theoretically overcome the LDP’s structural advantages. Reforms of the lower house electoral system and campaign finance systems, along with strengthening of the prime minister’s office, have transformed Japan’s once notoriously factionalised and clientelistic political system into a more centralised and powerful — but also more fragile — system. A popular prime minister has long electoral coattails, but given the weakness of partisan attachments in the electorate, a weak one can drag the party down to defeat — as happened to the LDP in 2009.
Still, a swing back to the centre-left in 2019 is unlikely. Despite worries about demographic aging, staggering government debts, and the US–China trade conflict, the economy seems to be in decent shape. Slow but steady growth has led to record corporate profits and slight increases in wages. Prices are stable, and thanks to declining numbers of young workers and a wave of retirement by baby boomers, the unemployment rate is at record lows.
Having weathered the Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Gakuen influence-peddling scandals, Abe remains surprisingly popular. 45 per cent of survey respondents support Abe, while only 32 per cent oppose him. Support for the LDP is much lower at 28 per cent, but it dwarfs that of the other parties — the leading party on the centre-left, the Constitutional Democratic Party, has only 3 per cent support.
Despite the valiant efforts of opposition parties to coordinate nominations so as to avoid competition in the 32 single-seat districts, polls suggest that the LDP and Komeito should easily capture over half of the seats and are within striking distance of the two-thirds majority in both houses required to send constitutional amendments to the voters for a referendum. But even if they reach this mark, it is unlikely that the pro-revision forces can agree on any reform proposal, least of all elimination of Article 9.
Nearly eight years after the LDP’s return to power, Japan has a stable, reasonably competent government — but little effective electoral choice and no immediate prospects of political accountability via a change in partisan control.
Gregory W. Noble is Professor at the Institute of Social Science, the University of Tokyo.