Meridian Beat: 2013 Upper House Election in Japan

Interviewed by: Naruhito Cho                      Posted on: August 9, 2013


Meridian 180 spoke with Professor Shigeki Uno about the significance of Liberal Democratic Party's landslide victory in the 2013 Upper House election in Japan and what this means to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's domestic and foreign policies going forward.

Meridian 180: What are your thoughts on the upper house election results?

Professor Shigeki Uno: While the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) did win by a landslide, it does not mean that the Abe Administration has the Japanese people’s full support. I think a more accurate description would be that LDP won by default because neither the Democratic Party nor the other opposing parties presented themselves as viable options to voters. Although the LDP has been ambivalent towards their policies on the TPP and the reactivation of the nuclear power plants and thoughthere was considerable opposition to the LDP’s proposal to amend the constitution, the opposing parties ultimately failed to clarify their own position on these issues. As a result, the debates only focused on how well the Abe Administration performed during the past six months and on resolving the gridlock diet.

Meridian 180: The LDP won by a landslide. What other factors helped them win?

Prof. Uno: Since the five year long Koizumi administration, Japan found themselves in an unsustainable political situation where the prime minister changed almost every year. The voters, therefore, wanted to see a more stable government. It remains unclear whether Prime Minister Abe’s economic policy -- the so-called “Abenomics” -- will continue to be successful, but the Japanese voters decided to see how things will go because the economy seems to be recovering.

Meridian 180: Why did the Democratic Party lose so much support? And why doesn’t the two-party system catch on in Japan?

Prof. Uno:  During the 2009 general election, Japanese voters took a bold step and voted for a regime change. However, Japanese voters were very disappointed by the Democratic Party’s performance during their three year term. The main issue wasn't only about their actual performance once it became clear to the Japanese people that the Democratic Party could not even pull their own party together let alone govern Japan.

Because the LDP has been in control for such a long time, opposing parties in Japan do not have much experience running the government. In addition, the single-seat constituency system implemented during the political reforms in the 90’s accounted for the growth of the Democratic Party. As a result, other than anti-LDP sentiments, there is really very little else that binds the Democratic Party together.

The Japan Restoration Party (Ishin no Kai) received much attention during this election. However, the joint party representative and Osaka City Mayor Toru Hashimoto’s inappropriate remark about the “Comfort Women” Controversy slowed their momentum. The neoliberal Your Party (Minnano Tou) also failed to gain momentum. Only the Communist Party, who presented a clear position on the nuclear power plant issue and the TPP, managed to collect the anti-LDP votes, and only by default.

The lack of unity among the opposing parties ultimately inspired the LDP’s landslide victory. Under the current electoral system, those challenging the LDP must unite if they want to stand a chance. However, now that the Democratic Party -- a party based on anti-LDP sentiments alone – failed, it is going to be very difficult to see the opposing parties get united and work together.

Meridian 180: There were many important issues in this election. However, the voter turnout was lower than the 2010 Upper House Election. What are your thoughts on this issue?

Prof. Uno: Historically, voter turnout has been on the decline since the 1990’s. This is especially true for young voters in their twenties. Voter turnout did slightly improve during the 2000’s. However, last December’s [lower house] election and this upper house election yielded low voter turnout. The LDP votes have been stable throughout this timeso the increase and decrease in voter turnouts are a result of anti-LDP voters. Those voters decided not to vote because they were disappointed by the previous regime change and were also not given enough options regarding the important issues during this election. These past six-months, [since Prime Minister Abe took power], those who supported the regime change in 2009 have been further disappointed by the Democratic Party’s recent ineptitudes.

Meridian 180: Will the election results lead to a realignment of the political landscape in Japan (such as a formation of a new alliance)?

Prof. Uno: Although LDP currently has an alliance with the New Komei Party (Koumei Tou, hereinafter “NKP”), the NKP is reluctant to amend the constitution. Prime Minister Abe, therefore, might try to form alliances with other parties who are more open to constitutional reform. If this happens,  – if for example, the Democratic Party members advocating constitutional reform [join forces with the Abe Administration]-- there may be a change in the country’s political landscape. These political changes may also be driven by the formation of a new anti-LDP alliance, in which casethe main question would be from whom?

At this time, however, we are unlikely to see any major change to Japan’s current political landscape. Considering the NKP has a solid support base, it is very risky for the LDP to abandon its alliance with the NKP. It is also currently very difficult for liberals within the Democratic Party to form an alliance with the conservatives of the Japan Restoration Party. To the extent LDP and NKP combined have a stable majority in both the upper and the lower houses, political realignment will unlikely gain momentum.

Meridian 180: How will the Abe Administration’s operations change now that the diet “gridlock” has been resolved?

Prof. Uno:  In the past six-months, Prime Minister Abe has been “driving very carefully.” His most important agenda is to amend the constitution. Rather than promoting his own constitutional agenda, he has focused on improving the economy. But now that the diet “gridlock” has been resolved, Prime Minister Abe might not hold his true political inclinations back any longer.

Meridian 180: Were there any surprises in this election?

Professor Shigeki Uno: The rise of the Communist Party was greater than expected. The fact that they won seats in the Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka [electoral districts] indicates the size of the anti-LDP voters in urban areas. However, the Democratic Party lost seats in return, so to some extent, the votes just shifted among the opposition parties.

Meridian 180: One of the major issues in this election is the reactivation of the nuclear power plant. Will the Abe Administration go forward with this?

Prof. Uno: Although energy policy could have been an important issue during the general election last December and during this upper house election, we did not see much debate on this topic. It didn’t help that those who oppose nuclear power, despite calling for full abolishment of the nuclear power plant by the 2030’s, failed to present a clear plan towards that goal. That said, seeing the Abe administration’s attitude towards the reactivation of the nuclear power makes me think that they have not learned much from the 3/11 disaster – it’s as if the crisis has not happened at all. Even if the administration is to reactivate the nuclear power plants, they should present clear standards toward that end. However, they have yet to provide any particular guide. I think they are just going to slowly reactivate the nuclear power plants.

Meridian 180: Another important issue in this election is amending the constitution. Will the Abe administration go forward with amending Article 9 (the “no-war” clause)?

Prof. Uno:  Instead of amending Article 9, the Abe administration is trying to first amend Article 96 which sets forth the procedures for constitutional amendments. By changing Article 96, the Abe Administration could lower the hurdle for constitutional reform. However, the public did not show much support for his attempt to amend the procedure without discussing the substantive amendment to the constitution. However, I think Prime Minister Abe will not let go of his ambition to amend Article 9 while he is in office. As such, he will raise this issue once again sooner or later.

Meridian 180: China, Korea and even those in Japan have voiced their concern over Japan’s “nationalism.” Is Japan really “turning right”? What are your thoughts on Japan “turning right” and its effect on this upper house election?

Prof. Uno: The fact that groups like the Zaitoku-kai (“Citizens against Special Privilege of Zainichi”) are freeliy taking the streets to openly propagate hate speech is an example of the xenophobic claims that we are starting to see in Japan. We see this especially on the internet. However, there is no reliable source that indicates that Japan as a whole is moving towards nationalism. Only a portion of the Japanese population resort to such hateful behavior and the majority of Japanese people have not changed. In this election, for example, Japan Restoration Party representative Toru Hashimoto’s statement regarding the “Comfort Women” controversy did not win him much support – in fact he was heavily criticized for it.

Meridian 180: How will the Abe Administration’s foreign policy change moving forward?

Prof. Uno: Prime Minister Abe wants to create an image of a “strong” Japan, especially in light of the emergence of China and Korea. On the other hand, Prime Minister Abe is also a pragmatist, and he does not want to ruin Japan’s relationship with China and Korea any further. If there is to be a crisis in the future, that would be when his [conservative] support base pushes his unyielding stance against China and Korea too far to the point of no turning back.

Meridian 180: Can Prime Minister Abe become a “strong” leader? For the past several years, we have seen prime ministers come and go almost every year. Will Prime Minister Abe complete his term?

Prof. Uno: To some extent, the Japanese citizens gave the next three years to Prime Minister Abe. There will be no election in Japan during this period unless Prime Minister Abe decides to have one. One of the reasons prime ministers have so often come and gone during the past several years is the frequency of the elections. In that sense, unless Prime Minister Abe brings upon his own demise, it would not be that difficult for him to hold his office for a long term. As I mentioned earlier, unless Prime Minister Abe pushes his constitutional agenda and/or his foreign policy too far, there’s nothing that really prevents him from keeping his office for a long term. In the end, however, it comes down to the economy. Whether “Abenomics” could really spark actual economic growth will be a major touchstone of his administration’s success. If his economic policy fails, it may cause some rifts within the giant ruling party.

Meridian 180: Finally, please tell us your thoughts on the issues the Abe Administration must confront in the years ahead.

Prof. Uno: The immediate issue needing to be resolved is the consumption tax. Will the Abe administration raise the consumption tax as planned or will they manage to avoid it? This will determine the reception of the Abe Administration. The next issue would be the TPP, and if he handles this the wrong way, he may lose his conservative support base. Either way, the short cut to a stable administration would be to focus on the economic issues. If he stumbles on Constitutional reform and foreign policy, his administration might end earlier than expected.

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Shigeki Uno is a Professor at the Institute of Social Science, University of Tokyo in the division of Comparative Contemporary Politics. His research focuses on the history of political science and on political philosophy. Professor Uno received the Suntory Prize for Social Science and Humanities for his book, Tocqueville: A Theorist of Equality and Inequality.