Weighing the landslide: A Japan House of Councillors election post-mortem

TOKYO–Every three years in Japan, a national election is held in which half of the 242 seats in its House of Councillors comes up for grabs every three years. In what was seen as a smashing victory for the Abe administration in the Sunday event, the media focused on two points: First, the “pro-constitutional amendment forces” consisting of the ruling coalition partners Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Komeito and a couple of opposition parties plus a handful of independents secured a combined super majority in the House of Councillors.

Japan PM Abe claims poll win

Japanese Prime Minister and ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) president Shinzo Abe places a red paper rosette on an LDP candidate’s name to indicate an election win at the party’s headquarters in Tokyo

The ruling coalition already has a super majority in the more powerful lower house i.e. the House of Representatives. The two-chamber super majority would be sufficient to put a constitutional amendment to the required national referendum. Although Prime Minister Abe did his best to keep the issue off the election agenda, he is believed to favor an amendment of Article 9 that puts the Japan’s armed forces on an equal footing with the rest of the world.

Those who favor such a change welcome the outcome, while those who do not are joined in opposition by pragmatists who fear that Abe will expend valuable time and political capital on constitutional amendment that would be better used on pushing the Abenomics agenda.

Second, the LDP barely missed out on securing a simple majority by itself. Combined with its House of Representatives majority, the LDP will be able to pass legislation without Komeito consent. Those who favor Komeito’s leavening effect on the more hawkish LDP and its conservative prime minister are acting relieved that the LDP fell short.

On both points, though, there is far less going on than meets the eye. On constitutional amendment, there can be no meeting of minds regarding Article 9 between the pacifist Komeito and the more conservative pro-amendment opposition parties, as I explained in my June 6 column. There is talk that items more palatable to Komeito such as environmental rights could be taken up first to pave the way for amending Article 9 later. But that sounds like letting a recalcitrant patient lick the sugar coating off the pill in the hopes that this will make him more amenable to swallowing the bitter medicine.

On the second point, there is the massive leverage that Komeito and its Sokagakkai support base has, as I also explained in my previous column. More specifically, Komeito can reliably swing upwards of 10 percentage points from its support base to the candidate of choice in any single-seat election. The LDP won 21 out of the 32 single-seat races contested this time around, although four opposition parties managed to marshal their support behind a single opposition in each of the 32. (Still, the LDP took 29 out of 31 in the 2013 election, which suggests that the four-party deal worked, which should be a subject for another column around the next House of Representatives election.)

How many of them could have survived a 20+ percentage point swing had Komeito left the coalition to throw its support the other way?

Does all this mean that the prime minister will put constitutional amendment on cruise control and focus on Abenomics, particularly given the uncertainties in Europe and the Chinese economic slowdown? Perhaps. But what does that actually mean?

Abe has dodged the tougher questions regarding structural reform, or the third arrow of Abenomics, on public pensions, health and nursing care, labor, and so on to avoid offending constituencies or attracting unfavorable media attention. It is not that he lacks the political leadership or courage to take hits. He did face down the agricultural lobby in wrapping up the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, which led to the LDP losing five of the six single seat districts in the Northeast and winning only one seat to the Democratic Party of Japan’s two in Hokkaido, two of Japan’s most rice and dairy-heavy regions.

But even there, he appears to have done TPP more for the geopolitical purpose of supporting the US rebalancing/pivot to Asia, showing little appetite to do more than merely tinker with the regulatory and tax regimes that stand in the way of structural reform. In short, he does not appear to be invested emotionally or intellectually in the kind of reforms that experts in the respective fields generally call for, much less more divisive issues like large-scale (for Japan) immigration.

Thus, for now, Abe looks like he’ll be spending the rest of his rule in continuation of incremental reforms, punctuated by stimulus packages to keep the economy from cratering, all the while in search of an opportunity to push his constitutional agenda. Here’s hoping that I’m proven wrong.

In the meantime, market players—specifically those who are into Japanese power companies and their suppliers—should focus their attention on the implications of the outcome of the Kagoshima Prefecture’s gubernatorial race held concurrently with the national election, where an opposition-backed candidate running on an antinuclear platform ousted the pro-nuclear incumbent.

Historically a conservative stronghold, Kagoshima is host to Kyushu Electric Power Company’s Sendai Nuclear Power Plant consisting of the only two units currently in operation in Japan. The new governor does not have formal authority over their operation, but it will be extremely difficult politically for Kyushu Electric to restart them without the governor’s consent after they are taken offline in October for regular inspections.

Add this to the reluctance of the Niigata governor to give his consent to restarting plants in his prefecture, plus preliminary injunctions that forced deactivation of two units in Fukui Prefecture—With Fukushima out of the picture, these two prefectures house the bulk of Japanese nuclear power plants still in commission—and the immediate and long-term future of nuclear power in Japan look rather bleak at this moment.

Jun Okumura is currently a visiting scholar at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs. He is a 30-year veteran of the Japanese civil service. During his career with the Ministry of Trade, Economy and Industry, he took part in several bilateral and multilateral negotiations, including UNCLOS II and and the Uruguay Round as the lead METI negotiator for trade in services. He headed METI’s Trade Finance Division during the Asian financial crisis. As president of JETRO New York, he worked with the Japanese consulate and business community to assist evacuated businesses and their employees in the aftermath of Sept. 11 2001.

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times. 

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