Japan’s post-election landscape

Banner in Shibuya, Tokyo saying ‘Election for the House of Representatives

On September 25, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced his intention to dissolve the House of Representatives for a snap election on October 22. The results of the election saw his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) holding on to its two-thirds majority. The newly formed center-left Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP) came in second, and Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike’s new conservative party, the Party of Hope came in third. In short, those in Japanese politics advocating revision of the constitution were strengthened in this election. The result constitutes a win for Abe, but says more about the weakness of the opposition than the popularity of his government.

The LDP wins

While most media outlets reported the LDP securing a “landslide”, the only party to increase its amount of seats was the CDP. After fielding 78 candidates, it won 55 seats, almost tripling its pre-election number of 15. The Party of Hope experienced disappointing results, winning 50 seats after fielding 235 candidates.

Meanwhile, the LDP maintained its firm grip on power, winning 284 seats and exceeding the 261-seat minimum needed for the party to appoint all chairs as well as the majority of members in lower house standing committees. This win marks the LDP’s third consecutive win in the lower house. Together with junior partner Komeito which secured 29 seats (down from 34) the government now controls 313 seats in the 465 seat lower house, or more than the two thirds majority (310) required to call for constitutional amendments.

With two new parties entering the fray, the public debate in Japan became dominated by what was seen as a new “tri-polar confrontation” (sankyoku taiketsu). The raison d’etre for the CDP is opposition to revision of the constitution and its article nine, known as the “peace clause”.

Right before the election, the previous largest opposition party and the CDP’s ideological predecessor the Democratic Party (DP) had an ambiguous stand on this issue and had just elected a new leader, Seiji Maehara, from the party’s pro-revision wing. When Maehara suggested a merger with the pro-revision Party of Hope to unify the opposition, anti-revision DP lawmakers went their own direction and formed the CDP. The Party of Hope was launched on the same day as Abe announced the election, and is the national version of Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike’s local party Tokyo Citizens First.

Support for Abe or lack of alternatives?

The LDP’s big victory seems to suggest that the government’s policies have great support in Japan. However, upon closer examination, the amount of popular support for the ruling coalition can be called into question. There were few seriously divisive issues up for debate in this election. With a relatively good economy in Japan and an opposition scrambling to mount a challenge to the party in power, it is hardly surprising that the prime minister and the LDP came out on top.

As Koichi Nakano, political science professor at Sophia University put it, the incumbent government won more because “people are disaffected and the opposition is divided”, rather than because of enthusiastic support. To add to this is the low turnout of 53.69 percent, partially due to bad weather conditions resulting from Typhoon Lan. In an electoral system like Japan’s where a majority of constituencies are single-seat elected by the first-past-the-post principle, the largest and most popular party will be favored and will proportionally win more seats than votes across the country.

Furthermore, as sociologist Eiji Oguma points out in an article in Asahi Shimbun, Komeito voters’ support of LDP candidates in single-seat constituencies is crucial in any election. Without it, he argues, the LDP would lose perhaps as many as 100 seats. In the Tokyo local elections over the summer, Komeito threw its weight behind Yuriko Koike’s party. As a result, the LDP suffered a big loss. This time, the party returned to supporting the LDP.

The Abe era continues

The results mean that Abe will unveil a new cabinet in the beginning of November and that he has cleared one hurdle – the other being the next party leadership election – in the way of becoming Japan’s longest-serving prime minister ever. This landmark will be passed if he is still in office by November 2019.

The results also mean that without losing any of his own votes in the lower house, the prime minister has received the gift of a whole new party with 50 seats – the Party of Hope – positively inclined toward constitutional revision. Even though polls show that the Party of Hope candidates are not positive toward revision under Abe, and notwithstanding that his suggestion to add a clause to article nine spelling out the constitutionality of the self-defense forces is controversial, this development pulls the broad group of pro-revisionist forces in the Japanese legislature far above the necessary supermajority needed for revision.

Perhaps more than anything, however, the election shows a fundamental dysfunction at the heart of Japanese politics: a perennial focus on opportunistically switching, merging, disbanding and even creating new parties. For those who seek to unseat the LDP and do not wish to see the constitution amended, there is a need to stop engaging only in politics, and to make up for this deficiency with a credible, alternative vision for the future of the country and for its policy direction.

Liam Palmbach is an intern and Erik Isaksson is Research Coordinator at ISDP’s Stockholm Japan Center.