Wednesday, March 30, 2016

An early Japanese election?

In recent days, there has been speculation that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will call an early election for the House of Representatives of Japan, after delaying an increase in the sales tax. This would be Abe's second usage of this tactic; he called an early election in December 2014 for the same reason, which he won easily.

Abe currently has a commanding majority in the House of Representatives, which is the house of the bicameral Japanese Diet that has the power of confidence over the government. His Liberal Democratic Party has 290 seats out of 475. If you add the votes of Abe's coalition partner, the Komeito Party (a Buddhist political organisation), the government has 325 seats, or slightly more than a two-thirds majority.

In the House of Councillors, the upper house which has the power to block legislation (but can be overridden by two-thirds of the lower house), the Liberal Democrats have 116 seats (with 121 needed for a majority) and the government coalition has 126. Even if they did not have a majority in this house, Abe could still pass his legislation with his two-thirds in the Representatives.

Like Australia, the Councillors have fixed six-year terms, and half of the members are elected every three years. Unlike Australia, however, the frequency of upper house elections does not match up with the maximum length of lower house elections. While the Representatives can be dissolved at any time, the maximum term is four years.

Also unlike Australia, the Councillors cannot be dissolved as a deadlock-breaking mechanism; while the 2005 lower house election was held to break a deadlock over privatising the postal service, the goal was to win two-thirds in the lower house.

This discrepancy has meant that Representatives and Councillors elections have rarely happened at the same time. It has only happened once in the history of the post-war Constitution; in 1980, when the Liberal Democratic government was defeated on a vote of no-confidence at the same time as the Councillors election. The government won a majority in both houses, including an unexpectedly large majority in the Representatives.

The last Councillors election was in 2013, which means that an election is scheduled for this year; July, to be precise. As a result, if an early election happens this year, it would make sense for it to be in July, to reduce administration costs and to keep turnout up.

So, that being the case, would an election make sense?

Arguments for an election

It would avoid a midterm election. Midterm elections can be dangerous for governments, as they allow voters to express dissatisfaction with the government without necessarily throwing it out. While this can be embarrassing for governments if the elections are for subnational districts, it is dangerous if the election is for a house with direct control over the government.

The effects of a general election, at which the fate of the government would be at stake, would likely give the election winner (likely to be Abe's Liberal Democrats) a boost in the upper house elections, perhaps even giving the Liberal Democrats an absolute majority.

This is an especially important reason, given that a recent redistribution has increased the number of single-member districts in the Councillors. Councillors elections take place using a mixed-member majoritarian system; 78 members are elected in districts using the single non-transferable vote, and 48 members are elected using party-list proportional representation in one nationwide constituency, with open lists.

The redistribution has reduced the number of two-member districts, and increased the number of single-member districts. Two-member districts are very hard to win two seats in, as, in a hypothetical race between three candidates (one from the opposition, two from the government), the government needs two-thirds of the vote to win both seats, assuming equal vote division. This normally means that each party only nominates one candidate, and the two seats go to the top two parties.

In a single-member district, however, the largest party only needs to win the most votes to sweep all of the seats. As a result, in the districts that have become single-member, the largest party will win it all.

For that reason, a drop in support for the Liberal Democrats could lead to a more dramatic loss in seats. Abe cannot afford such a drop; losing control of the Councillors would complicate the government process, and would likely weaken his strength within the Liberal Democrats.

It would strengthen Abe's leadership. Japan has a tendency towards revolving-door Prime Ministers; the 2009-2012 Democrat term in government had three Prime Ministers, and the preceding 2005-2009 Liberal Democrat government had four Prime Ministers. Abe's three-year Prime Ministership looks exceptionally long.

Perhaps this speculation of an election has come about because of unease within the Liberal Democrats as Abe's leadership. An election is a powerful tool for party unity; no faction would dare undermine the leader during an election, an election could allow Abe to attempt to get rid of his factional enemies, and an election would provide Abe with a personal mandate, which would make him harder to get rid of.

Arguments against an election

Unusual opposition unity. From the formation of the Liberal Democrats in 1955, until about 2000, Japan had a 'dominant-party' system, with the Liberal Democrats winning around half the votes and somewhat more than half of the seats, and the remaining seats going to the opposition parties; the Socialists, Communists, Komeito, and the centre-left Democratic Socialists. The Liberal Democratic government was dominant, because there was no alternative government; while the Socialists were the largest opposition party, they did not have enough seats to present the possibility of forming the government.

In 1993, the first non-Liberal Democratic government since the formation of the party was formed. It was a broad coalition of the traditional opposition Socialists, Komeito and Democratic Socialists, as well as a number of parties formed by Liberal Democratic dissidents. While it did not last especially long, one of its key achievements was the replacement of Japan's single non-transferable vote in 3-5 member districts with a mixed-member majoritarian system, in which 300 members would be elected in single-member districts and 200 (later 180) members elected in 11 multi-member districts using party-list proportional representation.

This electoral system was meant to create a two-party system, and encourage more competitive elections, as the opposition parties would be encouraged to merge by the majoritarian effects of the new electoral system. While it took a while, in 1998 the Democratic Party of Japan was formed, as a centre to centre-left party comprising social democrats, conservatives and liberals. The Komeito Party formed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, and what remained of the Socialists renamed themselves the Social Democratic Party. The Communists remained independent.

At the DPJ's first election in 2000,  the top two parties received 53.5% of the party list vote and 75% of the seats. This jumped to 72% of the vote and 86% of the seats in 2003, and was 69% of the vote and 89% of the seats by the time of the 2009 election, which was the year of the DPJ landslide. 

However, the DPJ's time in government exposed internal splits. The number of government MPs collapsed from 308 to 230, with those that left joining the anti-nuclear People's Life, Tax Cuts and Kizuna parties to the left and the nationalist Japan Restoration Party to the right (a much rarer move). While the anti-nuclear party did not perform so well at the 2012 election, the nationalists polled strongly, reducing the support for the top two parties to 43% of the vote and 73% of the seats. 

Since this election, there have been more party splits, with the Restoration Party splitting into two. This has made presenting an alternative government to the Liberal Democrats a difficult task, as there is little chance of them winning a majority.

However, in recent months the major nationalist party, the Japan Innovation Party, has decided to merge with the Democratic Party of Japan. The party formed is called the Democratic Party, and will be led by DPJ leader Katsuya Okada. It will also be joined by members of the tiny Visions for Reform party, which will give it nearly 100 seats in the Representatives and 71% of non-government seats. This would be enough to present a convincing alternative government.

It is worth noting that such an alliance may not necessarily be long-lasting. And this is a key disadvantage of an early election; it does not give this new party time to have factional conflicts, and potentially split. Abe would be going to an election at the time at which the opposition would be most unified, a courageous decision to be sure.

The stakes would be very high. As stated before, an early election would see Abe facing a more unified opposition. If the election is just for the Councillors, he could afford to lose this and continue to pass legislation. However, if his popularity wanes before a Representatives and Councillors election, the government could end up losing both its Councillors majority and its two-thirds Representatives majority, which would almost certainly lead to the end of Abe's party leadership.

So, what will happen?

In my view, it would not make sense for Shinzo Abe to call such an early election. Such an election would be a high-stakes poll that, if it goes poorly, could lead to Abe losing control of the Diet, which would almost certainly mean the end of his Prime Ministership. As for the consumption tax, an increase could be delayed until after the Councillors election, which could give him a boost.

However, speculation of an election is likely to stick around for longer, since Abe may need the threat of an election to keep members of his party in line, as talk of a consumption tax increase leads to a drop in his approval ratings. For this reason, if Abe is sensible, there will be no election, but there will be talk about it.

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