The Debate

Japan’s Upper House Election

As campaigning gets underway for this month’s Upper House election in Japan, Shinzo Abe’s ruling LDP appears well placed.

Last week, campaigning began for this year’s parliamentary election on July 21. A total of 433 candidates have registered to contend for the 121 open slots in Japan’s 242-seat Upper House. The ruling coalition needs sixty-three seats to gain a majority. If they can get seventy-two seats, the Liberal Democrats, Prime Minister Abe’s party, could gain a commanding majority on their own, propelling them back into a position of single party dominance in both of Japan’s houses of parliament.

For Prime Minster Abe, this election is more than a test of his conservative party’s popularity; it is also a mandate on him and a chance at redemption. It was during Shinzo Abe’s last stint as prime minister that the Liberal Democrats lost their majority in the 2007 Upper House election. The new Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) gained momentum, and ultimately, their victory in the Upper House contest led to their success in ousting the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)-led coalition in 2009.

Today, Abe openly refers to his personal responsibility for the creation of what the Japanese refer to as their “twisted Diet,” a period where no party could claim majority control of both Japanese houses of parliament. For most Japanese, the legislative stalemate that resulted is to blame for the governance problems that have confounded Tokyo even in the wake of the terrible disasters of 2011.

A July 6 Yomiuri Shimbun poll reported that the LDP is poised for victory. Abe’s support ratings remain high, largely due to his effort to stimulate the Japanese economy and end the two decades of deflation that has undermined confidence. Moreover, the prime minister’s ability to coordinate Japan’s bureaucratic machinery also signals a return to a more predictable governance style. The DPJ shook the foundations of the relationship between politicians and bureaucrats, and failed to find a way to implement a core electoral promise to reform the bureaucracy.

Many outside of Japan worry about the prime minister’s views on history, which seem perilously close to undermining Japan’s regional diplomacy. Tensions with China remain unresolved, and there seems little interest in Beijing in opening a diplomatic channel to discuss the East China Sea or the territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands in Japanese and Diaoyu Islands in Chinese. In Seoul, the new president Park Geun-hye has focused her diplomatic vision for the region on a “correct understanding of history,” a clear reference to her critique of Japanese historical memory.

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Diplomacy is not the primary concern here in Tokyo, however. Rather the refrain for this latest of Japanese elections seems very familiar. Japan’s effort at political reform seems only to have damaged the government’s ability to run the country. The LDP had lost voter support increasingly over the decade since the 1990s, but the DPJ’s inability to offer voters a viable alternative was a grave disappointment to many Japanese. Many of my Japanese friends, conservative or liberal, still seem fed up with their politicians, and less than confident about their government.

Abe’s LDP seems to offer the only viable choice this summer, as Japan’s opposition remains in disarray. The DPJ has yet to recover from the decimating blow at the polls in last December’s Lower House election. The new Japan Restoration Party dealt itself a fatal blow when its leader, Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, offended so many with his controversial remarks about Japan’s wartime sex slavery and his suggestion that the U.S. military take advantage of Japan’s contemporary sex workers. Other parties are very small, and not likely to make any gains at the polls. Only the Japan Communist Party seems to retain its reputation as a serious opposition force, but it is hardly likely to challenge the ruling coalition of LDP and Komei parties.

Expectations remain high for Japan’s economic recovery, and it is here that most voters wish Mr. Abe success. The markets have wavered of late, but the positive signs of change have raised hopes. The Nikkei average was at 10,230 when Mr. Abe came into office, and peaked in May at 15,627. Recently, it has come down some to 14,018. Likewise the yen shot up from 85 to the dollar in December last year, to 103 in late May, to settle now at around 99.

The Bank of Japan in its July 4 Regional Economic Report upgraded its economic assessment for eight of the country’s nine prefectures. Yet employment and wages remain unaffected, and interest rates on home loans have risen, leaving many still hoping that Prime Minister Abe’s economic policies will result in more tangible improvements for Japanese households.

While Japan’s economic success is foremost on most voters’ minds, there are concerns about the LDP and its agenda after the Upper House election. Voters seem less enthusiastic about revising Japan’s Constitution, and hesitant over Mr. Abe’s suggestion to amend Article 96 that spells out the procedures for revision. Mr. Abe and others are arguing for a lower threshold than the current two-thirds of both houses of parliament, suggesting instead a threshold of only half of Japan’s legislators. The national referendum that would then follow, he argues, would be a sufficiently high hurdle to demonstrate the popular will.

Another issue that seems to lay beneath the surface in this election is the future of Japan’s nuclear power. The prime minister has openly stated that he will restart Japan’s nuclear reactors, and he has actively encouraged civil nuclear cooperation in his diplomatic overtures in the Middle East and India. For those Japanese who remain skeptical of their government’s management of nuclear power, this may temper their support for the LDP.

If the combined success of the LDP and Komei parties in regional elections several weeks ago is any indication of the mood of the Japanese voter, however, it will likely mean a resounding victory for the ruling coalition on July 21.

It may even mean a return to LDP dominance after two decades of political change. Should a stable majority in both houses become a reality, the Prime Minister will have no legislative distractions ahead of him, only a popular demand for the complex and much needed transformation of Japan that stimulated political change in the first place.

Sheila A. Smith is Senior Fellow for Japan Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She blogs at Asia Unbound, where this originally appeared.