Japan's Lower House Election
December 14, 2012
On December 16 Japan will conduct an election for the Lower House of the Diet, the more powerful of Japan’s two legislative bodies that will soon elect Japan’s seventh prime minister in six years. This is the first Lower House poll since 2009 when voters, frustrated by political paralysis and anemic economic growth, ousted the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) after decades of nearly uninterrupted rule in favor of the relatively inexperienced Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which to that point had functioned as a rambunctious but fragmented opposition party. Internal divisions on policy coupled with a populist yet impractical tussle with bureaucrats and the business community made for a clumsy transition to DPJ rule, and the party has failed to produce a clear governance strategy as the country continues to recover from the triple tragedies of March 11, 2011. The current and third DPJ leader to take a turn as prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, passed a controversial tax increase earlier this year to address Japan’s fiscal ills and then somewhat surprisingly followed through on a promise to let the voters have their say by calling a snap election despite weak public approval ratings. This election takes place during a chaotic period in Japanese politics marked by the emergence of splinter parties and a new amalgam of mostly local leaders seeking to offer an alternative to the DPJ and LDP.
Q1: What’s the current state of play?
A1: Polls suggest the LDP is poised to make a comeback, and LDP president Shinzo Abe, who served as prime minister in 2006–2007, is the presumptive successor to Noda. There is a general consensus that the LDP and its junior coalition partner, the Komeito, will likely gain enough seats to obtain a majority in the Lower House. There is less clarity on whether they can exceed the 320 seats required to secure a two-thirds majority that would allow the LDP to override any opposition to legislation in the Upper House, where it does not enjoy majority status. (The next election in that chamber is scheduled for July 2013.) Most pundits expect Abe to form some sort of coalition government, perhaps with a newly formed conservative party known as the Japan Restoration Party established by Toru Hashimoto, the populist mayor of Osaka who recently joined forces with former Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara to generate a “third force” in national politics that could fare well in this election. Despite Prime Minister Noda’s best efforts to lead a substantive debate on issues such as Japan’s debt burden and trade, his party looks to take a drubbing, and the DPJ experiment is almost certainly over.
Q2: What are some of the core elements of the LDP policy agenda?
A2: Abe was criticized during his first term as prime minister for failing to focus on the economy and is now forcefully advocating a two-pronged approach of monetary easing to curb deflation and fiscal stimulus to jump-start growth (an apparent repudiation of Noda’s commitment to fiscal consolidation). The LDP will take a cautious approach to nuclear energy with an emphasis on ensuring the safety of nuclear power plants, but it will stop well short of the DPJ stance to eliminate nuclear from the energy mix entirely by the 2030s. The LDP is against Japan’s participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade negotiations if exemptions are prohibited, a predictable position for a political party with a rural support base but one that could become more nuanced. The United States actually never has signed a free-trade agreement without exemptions, and many in the LDP leadership view this as a way to join, recognizing that their business community supporters are in favor and that TPP is an important part of Japan’s strategy for the U.S.-Japan alliance and China. With respect to security policy, Abe plans to increase defense spending in the face of the North Korean nuclear and missile threat and China’s assertiveness in the maritime domain. He also will argue that Japan should exercise the right of collective self-defense to advance security cooperation with the United States and Japan’s leadership role in international security.
Q3: Are there implications for the United States?
A3: The alliance with Japan is a central pillar of U.S. strategy in the Asia-Pacific region and will remain so as the Obama administration articulates its regional priorities. The return of the LDP at the very least offers experienced leadership and improved prospects for governance that augur well for bilateral coordination across a range of issues. Increased defense spending in Japan and exercising the right of collective self-defense would facilitate improved interoperability between the U.S. military and Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, which in concert with other allies and partners would serve to help shape the regional security environment. Japan’s relations with China and the Republic of Korea will figure prominently amid tension over contested territories. Abe’s recent statements on sensitive historical issues also have garnered attention, though his major advisers expect him to pivot to the center in office as he did in 2006, when he oversaw significant improvements in Japan’s relations with Seoul and Beijing. Abe has stated his desire to visit Washington first should he become prime minister, an ideal opportunity for him to expand on his diplomatic agenda and vision for the U.S.-Japan alliance.
Q4: Will this election yield a period of political stability in Japan?
A4: Much will depend on the margin of victory for the LDP and its coalition partners. Should Abe sustain momentum through the Upper House election next July the odds for a more stable political environment become more favorable. But the reality is that none of the political parties including the LDP are that popular, and this election could constitute but another chapter in a messy process of political realignment in Japan. At the moment, the political center of gravity appears to have shifted from left to right, but this is less a pendulum swing than a slow movement toward a resting place near the center where a stable majority might ultimately reside.
Michael J. Green is senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and an associate professor at Georgetown University, in Washington, D.C. Nicholas Szechenyi is a senior fellow and deputy director of the CSIS Japan Chair.
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