Japan: Shinzo Abe’s Upcoming Election Test

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Japan: Shinzo Abe’s Upcoming Election Test

Will Japan’s farmers revolt against the LDP in the July Upper House election?

Japan: Shinzo Abe’s Upcoming Election Test
Credit: REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao

Elections for the House of Councillors, Japan’s upper house, might well bring back bad memories for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. After all, it was under his leadership that the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) lost 27 seats in July 2007. As a result of that drubbing, the ruling LDP-Komeito coalition faced a “divided” or “twisted” (nejire kokkai) Diet with a resurgent Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) under Ichiro Ozawa. In the past, the loss of a majority in the Upper House as well as divided Diets have both been key triggers for prime ministerial resignations. Certainly, the 2007 election was a major factor precipitating Abe’s resignation in September of that year.

Abe has a lot riding on this July’s poll. While a repeat of the 2007 result is unrealistic (the ruling LDP-Komeito coalition would have to lose around 13-14 seats), it is also unlikely that the coalition will, on its own, gain the necessary two-thirds majority to launch the process of constitutional reform.

The upper house in Japan is extraordinarily influential in Japan’s parliamentary system because of its power to block almost all legislation in the absence of a government majority. This power can only be overridden by a two-thirds majority for the government in the lower house. While the Abe administration is in this position, it could be endangered if he calls a double election in July.

Because of reform of the upper house electoral system, there are now 32 constituencies that end up effectively as single-member districts, compared with 31 in the 2013 election. In these electorates, every vote counts in order for a candidate to secure a plurality. They are concentrated in the rural and regional areas of Japan where farmers and the Japan Agricultural Cooperatives (JA), including their executives, staff and members, are important elements of the voting public. On a rough estimate, regular (farmer) and non-farmer associate members make up around 10 million voters (almost 10 percent of eligible voters). In the past, rural and regional districts have represented a reliable source of votes for the LDP.

However, Japanese farmers and JA have taken serious hits in recent times at the hands of the Abe administration, on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and JA reform respectively. When a study group involving approximately 50 local JA executives from across the country was held in Tokyo in February, the theme was the TPP. At the end of the meeting, one of the JA chairmen angrily spoke up: “It will be foolish to field a candidate from an agricultural organization (JA) for the LDP in the Upper House election. The battle has only just begun. We need to ask our members to reduce the number of LDP members in the Diet.” He was referring to the planned JA organizational representative in the national proportional representation (PR) electorate standing for the LDP, but he said that he would call for the withdrawal of this recommendation.

Other indications also suggest that both JA and the farmers are very unhappy with the Abe administration. When Shūkan Asahi sent a questionnaire to JA executives in February, support for the Abe administration came in at 3 percent. The questionnaire targeted 145 out of the 679 agricultural local cooperatives with responses obtained from 55 chairmen and directors.

With respect to the Abe administration’s agricultural policy reform, 74.5 percent answered that they “did not support” it, as opposed to 3.6 percent who did. When asked whether the JA executives would recommend ruling party candidates in the forthcoming Upper House election, only 37.7 percent said that they would, while 13.2 percent answered that they would “not recommend” and almost half (49.1 percent) answered that they “had not decided yet.”

Evidence of disaffection amongst co-op leaders was also seen in the “JA chairmen’s survey” that was published by Japan Agricultural News (Nihon Nōgyō Shinbun) on January 4, 2016. In this survey, 93 percent of respondents were dissatisfied with the Abe administration’s agricultural policy, while only 1 percent “highly appreciated” it. As for the result of the Upper House election, 75.3 percent answered that they wanted a situation where “the ruling and opposition parties are not necessarily reversed, but are of comparable strength,” with 50 percent answering that they had “no parties for which they had hopes.”

One Upper House LDP Diet member reacted to these results with surprise: “We were prepared for some harsh opinions, but this is worse than I imagined.”

As for why the JA chairmen would not endorse ruling party candidates, the responses included: “I now understand that I shouldn’t expect anything from them,” and “I have no reason to recommend them.” The chairman of a co-op in Akita, for example, explicitly affirmed that his organization would not be recommending the LDP. When it came to reasons why the chairmen would recommend ruling party candidates, most of them gave “passive” reasons, such as, “I am opposed to the ruling parties’ agricultural policies, but also appalled at the spinelessness of the opposition parties.”

Such comments suggest that even though many JA executives want to cut ties with the LDP, there is no opposition party that they feel they can turn to. Abe’s LDP might, therefore, win in the single-member constituencies by default, which may indeed be true across a whole range of electorates. Much depends on whether the opposition parties can present themselves as a united force presenting a coherent policy alternative.

As in the past, JA organizations may end up mostly endorsing LDP candidates, especially JA’s national bodies, but given that the co-ops are democratically managed by their members, the national organizations cannot override the views of local co-op members. Some co-ops will recommend opposition party members, while others will recommend both ruling and opposition party members or tacitly support an opposition party by not recommending anyone.

Between now and June 1 when the ordinary Diet session is set to end, the government faces the “TPP Diet” debate on the proposal for approving the TPP (TPP shōnin’an) and related bills. The deliberations will center on whether or not the 2013 Diet resolutions that demanded that five sensitive agricultural items be protected as “sanctuaries” (seiiki) were adhered to in the negotiations and also the effectiveness of the government’s proposed TPP-related agricultural measures decided in December 2015. The Diet resolutions called for the government to “exempt or subject the five sensitive products to further negotiations to ensure that they can be reproduced,” but 30 percent of them ended up being subjected to tariff abolition. Abe is claiming that the results of the TPP negotiations are consistent with the Diet resolutions, but many farmers and co-op leaders disagree.

JA has also registered dissatisfaction with the government’s explanations regarding its TPP-related agricultural countermeasures. Even taking these measures into account, the government’s trial calculation shows that the value of agricultural, forestry and fisheries production will fall by between 130.0 billion and 210 billion yen ($1.2 billion to $1.9 billion). Many in the agricultural industry are saying that these figures in fact underestimate the impact of the TPP on Japanese agriculture.

Farmers and JA will also be looking keenly to what will come out of the report from the LDP’s Agricultural, Forestry and Fisheries Industries Large-Boned Policy Formulation Project Team, which may put together an interim report in order to include some of the countermeasures in the LDP’s manifesto for the upper house election, in other words, “sweeteners” primed for the election.

Aurelia George Mulgan is professor of Japanese Politics, University of New South Wales, Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra, Australia. Her latest book (co-edited with Masayoshi Honma) is The Political Economy of Japanese Trade Policy (Palgrave Macmillan 2015).