Japan Decides

Japan Decides: The LDP In Decline?

With just two days before the House of Councillors election, the LDP’s chance of securing a majority of the 124 available seats is impossibly distant. Reaching a 2/3 majority (together with coalition partner, Komeito, and votes of other parties/independents who might be in favor of constitutional reform), is even a dimmer illusion.

A backlash as a consequence can be expected: PM Abe’s solo pledge of constitutional-revision, complicated by unrelated disturbances in the international arena (China, US-trade, South Korea, etc.), will devolve into a power struggle within the LDP that could see the dissolution of the House of Representatives later this year.

PM Abe has set a victory-or-defeat line of 53 seats: anything below that number will be considered a failure by the party: LDP power will have demonstrably diminished. To keep a majority of the house, the party must elect 67 seats, meaning that the LDP must capture 29 out of the 32 available seats just in single-member districts.

For comparison, the LDP in the 2016 election (124 of the soon-to-be 248 Upper House seats are up for election every 3 years) gained 21 single-district seats; this year, polls suggest that out-of-those 32 seats up for grabs, 6 will be definitely lost and 7 are at a substantial risk (and to make matters worse, losing districts are in current Cabinet Member districts).

A different story when combining single-member districts with the multiple-member districts: of the total 74 seats available in prefectural constituencies (that is, not including seats elected on the proportional representation bloc), 40 are expected to be won by the LDP. In districts with 2 ~ 6 seats, the LDP is expected to secure at least one seat. Indeed, in the multi-member districts of Hokkaido, Chiba and Tokyo, the LDP may even gain two seats.

In the national bloc (where votes are translated into seats proportionally following D’Hondt distribution model), the LDP is expected to gain 18 ~ 22 seats. Overall, the LDP will range from 49 to 65 out of the total 124 seats up-for-grabs, short in any case of the 67 that the LDP would need to form a single-party majority in the house.

Komeito is likely to gain all 7 prefectural seats they are running in and 7 in the proportional representation bloc, 3 more than the party had previously had won in 2013. The leverage will be greater for Komeito this time: Komeito will have the capacity to close the equilibrium gap vis-à-vis the LDP due to their pivotal role in the House as a result. This would create a difficult situation for the LDP.

“What’s the big deal?”, one might ask. “Wouldn’t the LDP negotiate with Komeito’s more than 20 lawmakers to form a majority like in the last legislature?” While they will continue their ruling coalition, the increased leverage by Komeito will undoubtedly create tensions. These will play out in various ways going forward.

The Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ) is on a roll. It will retain status as the largest opposition party in the upper-house. All opposition parties, including CDPJ, unified their candidates for this election in all of the 32 single-seat districts. With its 9 seats up for reelection, the CDPJ is expected to double its number of seats, with a likely good performance in Aichi, Tohoku and Okinawa, and even Tokyo where they may elect 2 seats in the prefectural district (the same number as the LDP).

In the nationwide PR constituency, the CDPJ will secure from 10 to 14 seats. The Democratic Party for the People, the other major opposition party, will suffer from CDPJ success, and it is expected to win only 2~4 seats in the prefectural constituencies and 2~3 in the proportional component.

Procedural House Rules grant significant advantages to the largest opposition party, while almost ignoring the lesser opposition parties. This conspires to make lawmakers from the nearly defunct Democratic Party for the People an ineffective afterthought, and thus likely to leave to the CDPJ before the next general election (we predict to be very soon). The other parties: Japan Communist Party, 6 ~ 13 seats; Osaka’s Ishin No Kai, 6 ~ 11 seats; Social Democratic Party, 1 seat; and famous Reiwa Shinsengumi, 1 seat.

The other risk that the LDP faces is losing (joined in a cobbled-together coalition) their 2/3 majority status in parliament, as they may run short of the 85 seats necessary in this election. Even the most optimistic polls do not see the LDP retaining their 2/3 majority in parliament, i.e., necessary in the event of a motion for constitutional reform.

Combining the ruling coalition (LDP and Komeito) with Ishin, would only get them 155 seats, short of the 164 2/3 majority (even assuming Komeito would vote en bloc for revision, which they have already ruled out). Thus, achieving a 2/3 majority would be at the mercy of independent lawmakers.

As the Constitution establishes: any attempt to reform the constitution requires a 2/3 majority in both the lower- and upper-house, subsequently ratified by a simple majority in a national referendum. Without the 2/3 upper-house qualified-majority, Abe is at an impasse.

Again, after so many delays, so much effort, and salience put into this single issue by the Abe administration, it is difficult not to equate the simple majority and 2/3 qualified-majority as an utter failure. And just for the sake of argument, let us imagine that PM Abe achieves a 2/3 super-majority (obviously with his coalition partner): Komeito President Yamaguchi is not behind a revision that involves changing « the basic principle » of Article 9 and about 87% of Komeito voters would oppose such change (difficult to see Komeito ignore a large percentage of core voters). If PM Abe were to call a referendum in these conditions, it would be political suicide. Indeed, of all the issues facing the Japanese voting population these days, only 7% of the electorate is concerned about reforming the constitution: 51% would vote “no” if given the chance.

So we are left with three possible scenarios, each carrying their own implications:

  1. controlled demolition: after the results of the upper-house election, the Prime Minister, responsible for failing over the possibility of amending the constitution and, additionally, allowing the opposition to get stronger, would be forced by ranks of the party to hand-in his resignation and dissolve the House of Representatives; likely triggering an LDP presidential election to elect a new party leader.
  2. diversion: replacing some ministers, i.e. Aso Taro, in a reshuffle of the Cabinet while shifting the political agenda. PM Abe would remain in power while he attempts to shift the LDP’s tenet from revising the constitution to another policy issue (i.e. Korea) hoping that his party executives, lawmakers and voters would accept such a policy drift. The possibility of gaining a voice in the international scene (a favorite hiding place for leaders during domestic turmoil), has been thwarted by a lack of results with Russia, a no-go in Iran, an ongoing trade issues with South Korea and an even a larger one with the United States.
  3. status-quo: Expect no change if the LDP does not retain a majority and is able to unite a 2/3 majority of lawmakers in the upper-house to amend the constitution in some way. In such a scenario then we should expect little change both in terms of government composition as well as the LDP’s policy agenda.

In our view, things are building for change in Japanese politics. The election results on Sunday are critically important and portend much for the next few months. Watch, in particular, the single-seat results!

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