Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Japan 2014

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has recently announced that he will be dissolving the House of Representatives (the lower house of the Japanese Diet), and will be calling a general election for the 14th of December. The election only had to take place in 2016, and many questions have been asked about Abe's motives.

How Japanese elections work (Feel free to skip this bit)

Japan's Diet, or parliament, is bicameral. The two houses are the House of Representatives and the House of Councillors. Both houses are elected by a mixed-member majoritarian electoral system. The Prime Minister is elected by the lower house, but bills must be passed by both houses. 

Recent Japanese politics has been rather complicated, but there are effectively two parties. There is the Liberal Democratic Party, which is a centre-right party, and the Democratic Party, which is a centre to centre-left party. 

The Liberal Democratic Party is old. It was formed as a merger of the Liberal Party and the Democratic Party (That name must have taken ages to think up). They were formed in 1955, and were consistently in power from 1955 to 1993. 

The Democrats are much newer. For the first 30-40 years of the Liberal Democrats' dominance, they were opposed mostly by the Socialist Party, which never even came close to government. There were three other parties, too. The Buddhist Komeito party, the centre-left Democratic Socialists, and the far-left Japanese Communist Party. 

However, in 1993, it all changed. The Liberal Democrats split, with many members leaving and forming parties with somewhat more creative names. The Japan Renewal, Japan New, and New Party Harbinger were all formed by Liberal Democrat dissidents. 

In the election of that year, the Liberal Democrats won only 223 seats, with 256 seats needed for a majority. The opposition won the rest of the seats; however, the Communists refused to enter government. The Communists had only won 15 seats, however, meaning that an 8-party alliance could be formed with the support of the Independents.

However, the government's hold on power was tenuous. The coalition only had 258 seats, a majority of just 2, It consisted of parties that could agree on little, other than the evil of the Liberal Democrats. Japan New Party Member of Parliament Morihiro Hosokawa, a former Liberal Democrat, was elected Prime Minister. This government passed electoral and political reform, but was simply too fractured to survive. Hosokawa resigned, and was replaced by another former Liberal Democrat, Tsutomo Hata.

Hata's premiership was cut short by the withdrawal of New Sakigake and the Socialists, who promptly entered into a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. This coalition was disastrous for the Socialists, but it threw the now-opposition parties into disarray.

The opposition parties formed two new parties; New Frontiers, and the Democrats. New Frontiers, which was led by promising young backroom hack Ichiro Ozawa, ended up with 156 seats, while the Democrats won 52. 

New Frontiers collapsed between 1996 and 2000, and Ozawa formed the Liberal Party to contest the 2000 election. The Liberals won 22 seats, and the Democrats won 129. The merger of the two parties created great hopes of a two-party system, a political system that had never been seen in Japan.

Hopes of this were dropped after the 2005 election, which was called by Junichiro Kozumi over postal privatisation. The Liberal Democrats won 296 out of 480, while the Democrats won only 113. This election was perceived as a disaster for the Democrats, and it was used as proof that they were unable to form government.

The Global Financial Crisis changed everything. After the popular Koizumi's resignation, Shinzo Abe ascended to the premiership. Abe's focus on textbooks and patriotic education was unpopular with an economy-focused electorate. Abe lost the 2007 upper house election to a resurgent Democratic Party, a loss which crippled the Liberal Democrats. Abe resigned as prime minister, and was replaced by a series of unpopular and ineffective leaders who failed to do much for the Liberal Democratic Party.

The Democrats, led by Yukio Hatoyama won the 2009 lower house election, with 308 out of 480. The Liberal Democrats, led by Taro Aso, collapsed to just 114, while no other party won over 25 seats. Hatoyama became Prime Minister with a record majority.

However, the Democrats' joy was short-lived. In 2010, Hatoyama resigned, following a scandal over an American naval base. He was replaced by Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Naoto Kan. Kan was popular at first, but ruined his chances in the upper house election after announcing a hike in the sales tax from 5% to 10% before the election. (Little hint to politicians: announce unpopular policies after the election).

The fractured nature of the Democratic Party caused serious problems for the party's stability. Ichiro Ozawa, upset at being forced to take the fall for a number of scandals, challenged Kan for the leadership. Kan comfortably beat Ozawa, but the damage was done.

Following the 2011 earthquake, Naoto Kan resigned. Yoshikiko Noda replaced him, and inherited the difficult task of rebuilding both the country and the economy. Noda, despite shutting down power plants, was still supportive of nuclear power, and supported the sales tax increase. Here, Ozawa saw his opportunity. In 2012, he resigned from the Democrats, and formed the People's Life First party, an anti-sales tax rise, anti-nuclear party, taking 49 Democrat lawmakers with him. This cut into the Democratic majority, and the opposition introduced a vote of no-confidence in the lower house. Noda won the motion, thanks to the Liberal Democrats abstaining, but was massively weakened.

Abe was elected leader of the Liberal Democrats, in preperation for the 16 December 2012 election. Noda's Democrats went to the election having won 308 seats at the last election, but only having 230 still in the party. Ozawa had teamed up with anti-nuclear governor Yukio Kada to create the Future Party, which held 61 seats. The Japan Restoration Party was formed by far-right Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara.

The result of the election was disastrous for the Democrats. They only won 57 seats, while the Liberal Democrats won 294. The Restoration Party won 54, only just behind the Democrats, while Future crashed to just 9 seats. After the election, all but one Future members left to form People's Life (another tool of Ozawa's), and the party collapsed in May 2013. The Democrats elected former Industry Minister Banri Kaieda as leader. 

The Opposition still controlled the upper house, but this changed in 2013, when an upper house election gave the Liberal Democrats a comfortable majority, and gave the Democrats only 13.4% of the vote.

Why an election?

The Liberal Democrats are currently fairly popular, but there are a number of political issues that can destroy a Japanese government, Abe is calling this election mostly to get a mandate for a sales tax increase, an issue that very much needs strong support from the electorate. A sales tax increase will take a long time to have a positive effect on the economy, and Abe needs the few extra years that an early election will give him.

The election may also be somewhat of a housecleaning for the Diet. The right-libertarian Your Party, which won 18 seats at the election, has split, with 9 members leaving to form Unity (the most ironic name for a political party ever). The Restoration Party split, with Kyoto mayor Toru Hashimoto forming the Innovation Party (which was a merger with Unity) and Ishihara forming the Party for Future Generations. People First is also on life support, and will lose almost all of its seats. A clean parliament will be easier to manage for Abe.

Party prospects

Given that Japanese opinion polling is utter nonsense, I will not attempt to predict seats shares. Rather, the table below demonstrates an approximation of how the parties will do. I won't write down justifications for all parties, as that would be overcomplicated, but any justification will be provided below in the comments.

Personally, I think that the Liberal Democrats will be returned to office by a somewhat reduced majority. The Democrats, no matter how hapless their campaign is, will just have to gain seats, while the Communists will probably gain seats. Future Generations is too isolated and weak, while New Komeito (Buddhist) will lose seats, but will remain fairly strong.


  1. What is the point of having an early election? How would it back up the policy except symbolically - why does he feel like he needs that? And in particular, how is it a good idea to do so for what is probably an unpopular policy - particularly considering how the announcement of unpopular policies ahead of election has backfired before (as you mention above)?

    "Japanese opinion polling is utter nonsense" what do you mean exactly? I have a feeling I know, but I'm not sure.


    1. Interesting questions. Abe may wish to call an election while he is still fairly popular in order to get some more time for the economic recovery to work; this election will give him until 2018.

      Regarding the backfiring of the sales tax announcement for the 2010 sales tax announcement, it is important to point out that the worst result for the Liberal Democrats was only 36% district and 27% PR. The Liberal Democrats, while far from strong, were a fairly effective opposition in 2010, and still had some support. The most recent result for the Democrats was 13.4% in the House of Councillors election. Abe perhaps feels that he can say anything he wants, and still beat the Democrats. Who knows, it could backfire, but it looks unlikely.

      As for Japanese opinion polling, the most recent pattern in the NHK polls (if you have Google Chrome, try this link has been about 35-40% for the Liberal Democrats, 5-8% for the Democrats, 3-4% for the Communists, 3-6% for Komeito, nothing for the others (People's Life hasn't hit 0.4%), and 30-40% 'no party'. Given the tiny vote for the Democrats compared to everyone else, it looks likely that the 'no party' is soft Opposition support, but the results are too vague to base anything on. The November results did however show an uptick for the Democrats of 3% and a drop for the Liberal Democrats of about that amount, but nothing drastic.

    2. I daresay that 'no party' would always be one of the largest 'parties' in polls, if polls included it in other countries... - JD

    3. But JD, everyone knows that modern political parties are all interested in nothing but the best for the people that they represent. I don't know where you would get the idea that any, say, American voter, would not have their entire worldview line up with that of the Republicans or Democrats.


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