Abe Shinzō’s LDP-led coalition with Komeitō got its wish Sunday, winning enough seats to retake control of the House of Councillors for the government and ending the “twisted” Diet for at least the next three years. With five seats still undecided, the LDP and Kōmeitō have secured 134 seats, comfortably over the majority threshold of 122 seats.
But it is difficult to declare Sunday’s results an strong mandate for Abe and his program.
First, the LDP fell short of winning an outright majority. The LDP is once again the largest party in the HOC, but it will still need to secure the votes of Kōmeitō to pass legislation in the upper chamber. It is unclear what threats Kōmeitō can wield to modify the government’s behavior — I doubt whether it can credibly threaten to leave the coalition — but since they wield the deciding votes in the HOC, they will be in a position to influence the government’s agenda, which will likely have consequences for nuclear energy and constitution revision. One could argue that Kōmeitō was the real winner on Sunday.
Second, the pro-revision parties fell short of a supermajority. The pro-constitution revision parties needed to win at least 162 seats to be in a position to pass constitutional amendments in the HOC. Given that the pro-revision parties don’t even share the same vision for the constitution, the road to revision is no less steep today than it was before the HOC election. That doesn’t mean Abe won’t try to cobble together some kind of revisionist alliance in the HOC, but I think the pattern I outlined in May will hold:
At the very least, we’re probably seeing the emergence of what will likely be a persistent pattern should Abe remain in power. Abe and his lieutenants will talk about the need to revise the constitution, Kōmeitō will express its unease about revision, what’s left of the left wing will sound the alarm, public opinion polls will reveal skepticism about revision, LDP grandees will suggest backing down…and rinse and repeat.
It is difficult to view the HOC election as public endorsement for a shift to the right.
Instead, we should view the HOC election as a sign that the Japanese political system is not “stable” or healthy. There is an emerging narrative that because the Abe government looks durable, the Japanese political system has achieved some stability after years of turmoil and ineffectual governments. Abe may well be in a position to last, although we won’t really know until he actually has to make a controversial decision (about, say, TPP or nuclear power or the consumption tax). But the election returns suggest that these will be trying years for Japanese democracy. The DPJ has more or less imploded, and seemed to spend more time during the campaign fighting amongst itself than against the government. The Communists soaked up anti-Abe protest votes and won eight seats, including three district seats, but the ability to win protest votes does not necessarily make for an effective opposition party. As Michael Cucek noted before the election, none of the opposition parties has anything constructive to say about the problems facing Japan. Abenomics is winning public support at least in part because it’s the only policy program on offer. Kōmeitō is basically left being the opposition-in-government. I think there are votes for a center-left program, but no party or leader has articulated one in simple, easily understood terms. Whether a coherent, effective large party can emerge from the DPJ’s wreckage is one of the most important questions in Japanese politics in the years to come.
Finally, policy challenges remain. With control of both houses, Abe has no excuses. He cannot hide behind the “twisted Diet” any longer. He is going to have to deliver results and make decisions with the potential to trigger major public opposition. The media, of course, will be waiting to pounce at the first sign that the government is slipping — to say nothing of Abe’s rivals within the LDP. The public is still opposed to nuclear restarts and is still opposed to raising the consumption tax next year. While the public as a whole supports Japanese participation in TPP, the LDP still includes an unwieldy mix of representatives from across the country, suggesting the possibility of a postal privatization-like confrontation between the urban and rural wings of the party.
In short, the HOC election was not nearly as transformative as it may seem. By failing to win an independent majority in the HOC, the LDP will continue to depend on Komeitō to pass legislation. But by winning a majority for the coalition, Abe will now be expected to use his political power to follow through on his pledge to revitalize Japan’s economy — with the public, the media, and rivals within the LDP ready to turn on him should he falter.