Monday, July 12, 2010

After the DPJ party: Japan wakes up to politics as normal

[corrected 7/13/10]

In Sunday’s Upper House elections, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), barely a year in power, suffered a serious defeat. It lost its majority in that chamber, thus placing its policy agenda in jeopardy. The lesson is that Japan is finally experiencing the rough, fickle politics of a “normal” democracy.

The DPJ lost 10 seats to end up with 106 (44 this time and 62 not up for election). The tally is far short of the 122 seats the DPJ needs to maintain a sole majority. Making matters worse, its coalition partner, the People’s New Party (PNP), won no new seats and has only three seats not up for election – a total of 109.

Worse, no other opposition party is willing to form a coalition with the DPJ. In sharp contrast, the former ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is overjoyed at having outpaced the DPJ to garnered 51 seats to the DPJ’s 44. But this is a limited victory since the LDP still only has a total of 84 seats in the Upper House, the result of its blood bath in the 2007 election that reduced the number of seats not up for election to a mere 33.

The other “winner” in the race was the LDP splinter party, Your Party (YP), led by former LDP lawmaker Yoshimi Watanabe. It came away from the election with an 11-seat first-time win. The New Komeito, former coalition partner of the LDP, dropped two seats to end up with a total of 19 seats, making its role in the legislative process in the upper chamber critical.

Conversely, the Social Democratic Party, which bolted from the ruling coalition in a pique over the Okinawa base issue, found no sympathy from the public. It continues to be a relic of the past, losing one seat in the election to end up with a mere four seats in the Upper House. Another fading force is the Japanese Communist Party, which also lost a seat to command only six seats.

[Tally updated 7/13/10]

Judgment Day

The DPJ had blown the Upper House election when Prime Minister Kan launched the campaign with a promise to raise taxes. He actually only meant to usher in a debate on tax reform including a possible consumption tax hike to 10%. But the “promise” to raise taxes became in essence the only campaign issue of the election. Historically, those prime ministers who introduced the taboo issue of a consumption-tax hike suffered defeat in the next election.

Political scientists in Japan liken Upper House elections, which occur every three years for half of the 242-seat chamber, to a mid-term election in the US, like the one the Congress faces this fall. Voters go to the polls essentially to evaluate the performance of the administration in office.

Most analysts of the July 11 Upper House election saw it as judgment day. The verdict was not only on Kan’s ill-advised promise to raise taxes. Since the administration of Prime Minister Naoto Kan in its month or so in office had virtually no achievements yet to tout, the election also became a referendum on the performance of his predecessor, Yukio Hatoyama, who resigned to take responsibility for a political scandal and a vastly unpopular decision to resolve a U.S. base issue in Okinawa.

Kan, who was deputy prime minister and then finance minister in the Hatoyama government, had to share blame for the DPJ administration’s inability to implement many of the campaign promises contained in its manifesto used in the campaign last summer. Moreover, Kan’s economic strategy of fiscal constraint raised further skepticism among the public. The result was a flight away from the DPJ by the electorate in Sunday’s poll.

Since 1989, three prime ministers have resigned as a result of poor party performances in the Upper House elections of 1989 (Takeshita), 1998 (Hashimoto), and 2007 (Abe). The Lower House elections determine which party will rule, but the Upper House elections can determine whether an administration will continue or fall.

Kan maintains that he will stay on at the helm despite his party’s defeat on Sunday, but this may only postpone the inevitable. He is already being strongly criticized from within the party for contributing to the party’s defeat by his kiss-of-death campaign promise to consider raising the consumption. In a month, the Prime Minister squandered his party’s resurgent popularity, something that his predecessor took nine months to do.

The election turnout was 57%, a point under the previous Upper House election in 2007. This means that many unaffiliated voters, who make up close to half of the electorate, stayed home. Those who did vote deserted the DPJ that they favored only last August in the Lower House election. They turned instead to the LDP and YP as the parties of preference.

An NHK exit poll showed a 21% drop in votes for the DPJ by the unaffiliated voters, compared to the Lower House election on August 30, 2009. The exit poll showed 21% of unaffiliated voters favoring Your Party and another 18% choosing the LDP.

Ozawa the Terminator?

Kan may stay on as prime minister, but his days may be numbered, particularly if his now arch-enemy Ichiro Ozawa has his way. Ozawa is still smarting from Kan’s words after he resigned as party secretary general. Kan said that Ozawa, having plagued the party with his politics and money scandal should now “stay quiet for a while.”

There are strong rumors in the press that he will make his next move in September to terminate Kan during the election for DPJ party president. Ozawa would either run for the post himself or field a proxy to unseat Kan.

Ozawa’s own fate is still far from certain, though, since he may still be indicted for the money scandal that has put three former aides in jail. Tokyo prosecutors, who twice rejected the possibility of indicting Ozawa, citing a lack of evidence, could be overturned by a review panel looking into the case if it reaches the same decision to indict a second time.

If Ozawa manages to avoid again indictment, Japanese voters this fall may see their third DPJ prime minister in a year. This man may very well bear the imprint of the very politician they thought they had finally dismissed. Again, the Japanese voter will be frustrated and disappointed.

Shattered Dreams

The DPJ had dreamed of becoming a full-fledged administration that could guarantee stable politics and policy-making by landing a sole majority of 122 or more seats in the Upper House to match its dominance in the Lower House. It needed to win 60 seats in the July 11 election to do so, but only attained 44. It had to attain 56 seats in order to reach a majority with its coalition partner, the People’s New Party.

That dream has been dashed. The LDP has emerged at the top, although far from a majority even with its former coalition partner, the New Komeito. However, the opposition in the Upper House is now able to block any legislation except the annual budget coming up from the Lower House for passage.

The LDP was able to survive three years of such a “twisted Diet” (nejire-Kokkai) situation because it had the constitutionally necessary two-thirds control of the Lower House to override bills rejected by the other chamber. The DPJ, however, does not have the votes in the Lower House even with its coalition partner to override bills, so the possibility is high that bills sent to the Upper House will be killed.

With this gridlock scenario in mind, the reinvigorated LDP is likely now to press hard to force a snap election of the Lower House that might raise the possibility of its return to power in some form of coalition. This is a feat that it managed to pull off in 1994 when it replaced the short-lived Hosokawa administration with a coalition that included its old enemy the then Japan Socialist Party.

Only through strategic cooperation on specific policy issues can the DPJ survive in power. Much like the situation in the US Congress. It is questionable, especially with politicians unused to this situation, as to how long such a tenuous situation can continue. And like voters in other industrial democracies, the Japanese electorate is likely to become impatient again.

Dr William Brooks
APP Senior Fellow

*After the Party by Andy Warhol, 1979

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