Japan’s Upper House Elections: A Question of Stability

Japan’s party leaders have argued that voters face a stark choice in the July 10 election for the Diet’s upper house. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has warned that the opposition wants to undo Abenomics and bring Japan back to economic stagnation; Katsuya Okada, leader of the opposition Democratic Party (DP) has called upon voters to stop Mr. Abe from “running wild” over Japan’s democracy.


In reality, however, the most likely result of the election is that it will reaffirm the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)-Komeito coalition’s stable control of the Diet.


Although Mr. Abe took power promising to overcome Japan’s long-term economic decline and introduce “bedrock reforms,” the prime minister’s most notable achievement has been his durability. He has ended Japan’s revolving-door premiership that saw seven new prime ministers take office 2006-2012 (including Mr. Abe twice); used the newly expanded powers of the premiership to control the bureaucracy and dominate policymaking; and disciplined members of his own Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). He has run some risks – reinterpreting Japan’s constitution and then updating legislation to allow its armed forces to exercise the right of collective self-defense – but generally Mr. Abe has governed cautiously.


As a result, his government’s approval ratings have remained historically strong. Since the start of 2016, its approval ratings have only briefly fallen below 45% and never below 40%, and have occasionally risen above 50%. These approval ratings have persisted despite growing disapproval of Abenomics and other policy initiatives. Voters are therefore likely to ensure that the ruling coalition retains a stable upper house majority on July 10. After all, 49% of respondents told the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest daily newspaper, that they support the Abe administration retaining its upper house majority next month, compared with only 36% who do not. In other words, the Japanese people are not joining in the global anti-establishment wave; indeed, to the extent that populist revolts like the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote have global economic consequences, they may make Mr. Abe’s stable grip on power even more appealing to voters.


Ironically, the greatest risk to Japan’s political stability may be not that the ruling coalition loses ground to the opposition, but that the Abe government performs so well as to win an upper house supermajority and so have the votes with which to pursue constitutional revision.


The risk is not, however, as Mr. Okada and other opposition lawmakers have presented it, that Mr. Abe will be “run wild,” replacing Japan’s postwar constitution and otherwise eroding existing democratic institutions. If the LDP, its coalition partner Komeito, and a handful of smaller pro-revision parties win the seventy-eight seats needed to win an upper house supermajority it would enable Mr. Abe to pursue his long-cherished goal of revising Japan’s postwar constitution – which is guaranteed to be a divisive process. Indeed, a revisionist push by Mr. Abe would be so controversial that it is difficult to see how Mr. Abe could survive in office. Even an innocuous amendment relating to something other than Article 9, the so-called “peace” clause, could be the source of controversy, since critics would try to present any amendment as a Trojan horse for a broader revisionist campaign.


Meanwhile, it is not even clear whether the ruling coalition could agree on a plan for revision. Although Komeito, the centrist junior partner, is nominally in favor of revision, its members have a dramatically different vision for what should be amended than their LDP counterparts. A survey of upper house candidates by University of Tokyo political scientists and the Asahi Shimbun found Komeito candidates largely prefer amendments regarding environmental protection and privacy rights; LDP candidates prefer amendments recognizing the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) as a military and strengthening the state’s ability to respond to emergencies. Meanwhile 68% of LDP candidates would want the constitution revised during their term, 80% said they were not particularly fixated on the next term. Not a single one said they thought it should be a priority for the upper house over the next six years.


No less importantly, given that Japan’s parliamentary norms protect the right of minority parties to be heard, opposition parties are categorically opposed to Mr. Abe’s vision for the constitution and would use every parliamentary tactic at their disposal to stall the debate. Heated parliamentary debates would undoubtedly be accompanied by enormous protests outside the Diet, as happened in 2015 as Mr. Abe guided controversial national security laws through the parliament. After all, polls consistently show that not only does the public oppose revision, but few voters think it should be a top priority for the government.


For these reasons, it is possible that Mr. Abe could pass on constitutional revision even with an upper house supermajority. However, there is no question that with supermajorities in both hands Mr. Abe will be tempted to pursue a goal that he inherited from his grandfather, wartime cabinet minister and postwar prime minister Nobusuke Kishi, and which has been fundamental to Mr. Abe’s identity as a politician.


Therefore, from the perspective of Japan’s continuing political stability the best possible outcome for Mr. Abe, Japan, and the opposition may be for the opposition to exceed expectations and deny the government a two-thirds majority in the House of Councillors. Winning by less than he had hoped will force Mr. Abe to devote his energy to a much-needed course correction for Abenomics instead of gambling on constitutional revision. No less importantly, a stronger-than-expected performance could breathe some life into the Democratic Party, which has struggled to remain relevant in the face of Mr. Abe’s dominance. After all, over the longer term, the best guarantor of political stability – and effective policymaking – will be meaningful competition for power between Japan’s two major parties.

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