Japan’s Upper House Elections: Stability over Disruption
July 22, 2019
On July 21, Japan’s ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe secured a majority in elections for the upper house of parliament, positioning Abe to become Japan’s longest serving prime minister. Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and junior partner Komeito fell short of a desired super majority but prevailed in a contest that ultimately favored continuity under the current government. Abe will use a new window of political stability to further his economic growth strategy and other domestic policy initiatives while pursuing a robust diplomatic agenda centered on maintaining close ties with the United States.
Q1: Did the election results meet expectations?
A1: The ruling coalition secured 71 of 124 seats contested to maintain a majority in the Upper House of the Diet (parliament), the weaker of the two chambers but an important barometer of the prime minister’s political strength. (Approximately half of the 245 seats in the Upper House are contested every three years). Abe’s first stint as prime minister ended abruptly after a disastrous showing in an Upper House poll back in 2007, but he performed well in the 2013 and 2016 Upper House elections since returning to power in 2012. Public opinion surveys prior to this election indicated the ruling coalition would likely emerge victorious, but pundits focused on whether Abe could secure a two-thirds majority that would support one of his core policy objectives: revising the constitution to acknowledge the role of Japan’s self-defense forces formally. Abe fell short of that threshold but interpreted the results as an invitation to press forward with an agenda focused on realizing sustainable growth, investing in defense capabilities, and showcasing Japan’s diplomatic weight regionally and globally. Opposition parties picked up some seats by criticizing Abe’s economic policies and highlighting social security as an urgent concern given Japan’s aging population and reports on the eve of the election that some seniors would fall short of coverage in coming years. But consistent with public opinion data leading up to the election, many voters did not consider the opposition party platforms a viable alternative to Abe’s agenda and stuck with the ruling coalition. Abe need not face another election until the next Lower House poll in fall 2021 and thus benefits from a lengthy window in which to expend political capital.
Q2: How will Abe use his fresh political capital?
A2: The election outcome likely renders constitutional revision a long-term prospect rather than something to be achieved in the near term, but Abe expressed a desire to continue debating the issue while acknowledging that implementation would require support from other parties given that the ruling coalition only enjoys a two-thirds majority in the Lower House. (Constitutional revision requires two-thirds support in both houses and majority support in a public referendum.) A prolonged debate on constitutional reform plays to Abe’s advantage since it is more likely to divide the ideologically diverse opposition parties than his own coalition government. Abe is also aware of public concerns about the economy and will press forward with a growth strategy that has produced mixed results thus far amid heightened concerns that trade friction could adversely affect Japan’s competitiveness. Despite fierce criticism from the opposition during the Upper House campaign, Abe also plans to move forward with a scheduled increase in the consumption tax this fall (absent a sudden downturn) to shore up public finances. Though Abe emerges from this election relatively unscathed, he will face continued pressure to deliver on the economy and could be forced to shelve other competing priorities in the near term.
Q3: What’s on Abe’s diplomatic agenda?
A3: Abe’s hosting of China’s Xi Jinping for a state visit will be an important next move, and his victory in this election will give him more leverage to ensure that Beijing treats him with respect they have not accorded him in the past. The North Korean nuclear challenge, as well as the fate of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 80s, will remain priorities. Abe also would like to continue diplomatic engagement with Russia to resolve a dispute over the Northern Territories, though concrete progress on that front remains elusive. Engagement with the United States will center on bilateral trade talks that reportedly might produce some sort of agreement by September when Abe could meet President Trump on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York. Abe is certainly in a better position to make concessions on trade talks with Washington in order to put the uncertainty around whether Trump might impose auto tariffs behind him. Iran could also feature prominently in bilateral dialogues as tensions increase in the Strait of Hormuz, and the two governments will likely also address the rapid deterioration in Japan-South Korea relations, which prevents coordination on shared interests among two critical U.S. treaty allies. Having just hosted the G-20 summit, Abe can also be expected to continue stressing the importance of international institutions in the lead-up to the G-7 meeting next month, the UNGA in September, and annual summits in Asia later this fall. These are just a few of the foreign policy issues Abe will address while simultaneously engaging the Japanese public on domestic policy.
Q4: Are there broader strategic implications?
A4: In a post-election interview, Abe reportedly characterized the Upper House contest as a choice between stability and disruption, clearly a reference to the perceived risks associated with handing power to a fractured opposition that was unable to advance a cohesive policy agenda during a previous stint in government between 2009-2012. But his comments also resonate in the context of international relations. Abe’s victory extends a period of political stability in Tokyo at a time when tumult in other political capitals has raised questions about the nature and sustainability of the existing international order. Though imperfect and not fully realized, Abe’s policy agenda positions Japan to further its leadership role across economic, security, and normative dimensions. Abe’s experienced voice on the international stage benefits U.S. interests as the balance of power in Asia and beyond is increasingly contested.
Michael J. Green is senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Nicholas Szechenyi is a senior fellow and deputy director of the CSIS Japan Chair.
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