As expected, Japan’s ruling coalition won a majority in Sunday’s Upper House election, earning majority control of both houses of parliament for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The standoff between Upper and Lower Houses that began in 2007—what became known as the “twisted Diet”—is over. The question now is what the Abe cabinet will do with this legislative majority, and what priorities he will bring to Japanese governance over the next three years.
Polling prior to the election suggested the coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the smaller Komei Party winning handily. The LDP won sixty-five seats to bring their total in the Upper House to 115, and with the Komei’s twenty seats (eleven of which were picked up last night), the ruling coalition now boasts 135 of the 242 seats in the Upper House. Yet the voter turnout was only 52.61 percent, the third lowest for a Japanese Upper House election, injecting a cautionary note to an otherwise celebratory day for the prime minister. LDP candidates, however, won in 29 of 31 single member races, and in many cases, they won by wide margins. Together, the ruling LDP-Komeito coalition won 25 of 48 proportional seats (52 percent).
Japan’s opposition parties clearly struggled to compete. The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) continued to suffer, losing twenty-seven of its incumbents. For the first time since the party was formed in 1996, the DPJ garnered fewer than twenty seats in the Upper House election (winning only seventeen). Ichiro Ozawa’s new party, the People’s Life First Party (Kokumin no Seikatsu ga Daiichi), did not pick up any seats, nor did the Green Wind Party (Midori no Kaze). Among the three smaller urban parties, all picking up eight seats each, it was a mixed story. The new Japan Restoration Party (Ishin no Kai) led by Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto made little headway, in large part because of his deeply controversial comments on Japan’s wartime sexual slavery. The Your Party (Minna no Tou), largely a party advocating deregulation, held its own, but finds itself left out in the cold by the success of Abenomics.
Finally, the story of this election for Japan’s opposition parties seems to be the success of the Japan Communist Party (JCP), which picked up seats in three single member districts—for the first time in twelve years—in Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto. Even before political reform in the 1990s spawned a host of new Japanese political parties, the JCP had been a consistent and vocal critic of Japan’s conservatives, and clearly one the voters decided they could count on again to articulate opposition on key issues such as nuclear energy, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and constitutional revision.
What this outcome means for the Abe government will become clearer in coming weeks, but the policy implications of this election are already visible. On Sunday night, Prime Minister Abe began outlining his priorities, beginning with Japan’s economic recovery. Addressing the public’s desire for demonstrable economic growth, he said that he planned to use the political stability generated by this election first and foremost to further improve Japan’s economy. When queried by the media about constitutional revision, the prime minister stepped back from some of his earlier statements about the need to make it easier to revise Japan’s constitution and instead focused on the fact that much work remains to be done on designing a national referendum, referring to the law his government passed during his last time in office. This morning, Shigeru Ishiba, the LDP’s secretary-general, went further to say that the nation needs a careful and full conversation on the topic of constitutional revision, and that his party will not hurry the process or be out of step with the sentiments of the Japanese people. This effort at reassurance undoubtedly reflects the fact that few Japanese wholeheartedly support revision and many were worried that the prime minster might head in that direction if he won.
Japan’s diplomacy is also a worry here. Both the prime minister and Secretary-General Ishiba recognize the need for care and consideration in the pursuit of better relations with Japan’s neighbors in Northeast Asia. Ishiba stated that leaders in all of these countries needed to pay close attention to the sensitivities of each other’s publics. Expectations here are that with the election behind it, the Abe cabinet will now be able to turn its attention to Japan’s diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific. The prime minister is expected to visit the Philippines, Malaysia, and Singapore shortly, but it is the possibility of movement in the relationship with Korea and China that most experts here are focused on.
The Abe cabinet is also poised to begin serious consideration of its security policy, with several key issues on the agenda for this fall. Already the National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG), Japan’s defense planning document, are under review, including its five-year procurement plan. A cabinet decision on the NDPG is expected in December. Also under discussion is the question of Japan’s interpretation of the right to collective self-defense, a topic of longstanding import to the operations of the Self-Defense Force for its participation both in UN peacekeeping operations and in conjunction with U.S. Forces under the alliance. The advisory group tasked with making recommendations on this to the prime minister should complete its report in September. Finally, this fall the U.S. and Japanese governments are expected to initiate a review of the U.S.-Japan defense cooperation guidelines in an effort to update their priorities for shared missions and force postures.
Perhaps the most significant reform will be the new national security council designed to elevate Japan’s strategic planning process to the prime minister’s office. Planning has been underway for some time at the request of Prime Minister Abe, and the legislation required to implement this new advisory body will likely be presented to the Diet this fall. Already key participants in this initiative have been moved into the prime minister’s office.
Yesterday’s results created an electoral foundation for Prime Minister Abe that will enable him to move forward confidently so long as he keeps the focus on improving Japan’s economy. Inside and outside of Japan, there are deep concerns about the idea of revising the postwar constitution. From the tone of his comments last night, Abe seems to understand that his success depends on staying close to the desires and aspirations of the Japanese people, as well as working closely with the United States on improving Japan’s security cooperation.
Leading up to Sunday, the specter of a prime minister emboldened by electoral victory to pursue a nationalistic agenda dominated the media. Today, Japan’s prime minister and his party put forward an image of their government as restrained and deliberate.
What Abe seems to be saying is, “Don’t worry, I’ve got this.”
Sheila A. Smith is Senior Fellow for Japan Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She blogs at Asia Unbound, where this originally appeared.