Japan’s Upper House Elections: Ruling Coalition Strengthens Majority

Will Japan Amend Its Constitution?

In elections on July 10, 2016, for the Upper House of Japan's Parliament, known as the Diet, the ruling coalition enlarged its majority from 135 to 146 seats out of 242. The conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, now holds two-thirds of the Lower House and a solid majority in the Upper House (see Figure 1) with its junior coalition partner Komeito. This fourth straight victory in parliamentary elections by Abe's coalition reinforced his political power. Although the ruling coalition by itself fell short of the two-thirds threshold that would be required as part of the process to amend Japan's constitution, the total number of politicians who support constitutional revision (including small, independent parties) exceeds the threshold in both chambers of the Diet. However, creating a consensus on what to change in Japan's constitution will prove challenging (see below).

Abe and the LDP framed the election as a referendum on Abe's economic policies, in particular his decision to postpone a planned increase in the consumption tax from 8% to 10%. Japanese voters consistently describe economic issues and social welfare programs as top priorities. Abe has capitalized on this by emphasizing his so-called "Abenomics" program of monetary expansion, fiscal stimulus, and structural economic reforms, despite growing criticisms of the efficacy of Abenomics and the depth of current reforms.

Figure 1. Party Affiliation in Japan's Parliament

Source: "2016 House of Councillors Election Result Infographics," Mainichi Shimbun, July 12, 2016.

Opposition Parties Lack Appeal; Support for LDP Remains Steady but Shallow

The largest opposition party, the Democratic Party (DP), saw its seat count fall from 62 to 49 in the Upper House. The DP struggled to set the election narrative and gained limited traction with its campaign pledges to oppose several items on the LDP agenda: revision of the constitution, expansion of Japan's military capabilities, and resumption of nuclear power production. Despite the DP's overall loss of Upper House seats, it and other opposition parties won several hotly contested seats on July 10 by fielding joint candidates. The partial success of the controversial alliance between the largely liberal DP and far-left Japan Communist Party (JCP) may encourage further cooperation among the opposition parties, which could threaten the electoral dominance of the LDP-Komeito coalition.

Although public approval ratings for the Abe Cabinet remain around 45-50%—much higher than for past Japanese prime ministers after several years in office—a majority of the public, according to one survey, thinks that "Abenomics" should be revised and 28% think it should be "pursued further." Tepid support for the LDP's concrete policy aims and relatively low voter turnout (54.7% on July 10) are signs that the foundation for Abe's political strength may not be as deep as his coalition's seats in the Diet would indicate. Recent legislation made Japanese aged 18-19 eligible to vote, but this cohort appears disaffected with the state of politics.

No Consensus on Amendment of Japan's Constitution

Abe has called amending Japan's constitution his "historic mission," and, in the past, he explicitly advocated for changing Article 9, which outlaws war as a "sovereign right" of Japan and stipulates that "land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained." Abe argued that the constitution does not reflect the reality facing Japan and the need for Japan's military. Amendments to the constitution, which was drafted by U.S. officials during the occupation of Japan after World War II and has never been amended, require approval of two-thirds of each chamber of the Diet and must be approved by a majority of voters in a nationwide referendum.

Exit polls indicated that the Japanese public is split on the need to revise the constitution; however, there are a wide variety of proposals on what to amend. During the campaign Abe did not offer specific proposals for constitutional amendment, instead stating that both chambers of the Diet should convene Commissions on the Constitution to discuss amendments. The LDP drafted a revised constitution in April 2012 containing numerous changes, though some observers criticized the proposed changes as illiberal. In order to secure two-thirds of the Upper House votes, Abe and the LDP would need the cooperation of Komeito, known as a pacifist party opposed to alteration of Article 9, and several small, independent parties with their own agendas. In short, amending Article 9 remains "daunting," given the required political negotiations and public skepticism.

Implications for U.S.-Japan Relations

Many analysts credit Abe's leadership with strengthening the U.S.-Japan relationship to its current robust state. Since assuming office in late 2012, Abe has championed several initiatives supported by the United States despite a significant degree of public opposition. The Upper House election likely will have implications for these important issues:

Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The Abe Administration is expected to push for Diet ratification of the TPP in the fall, although the defeat of LDP candidates in Japan's agricultural northeast—partially the result of voters' opposition to the TPP—may change this timeline.

Currency. The yen has strengthened in recent months and weeks, and economic analysts expect that the Abe Administration will continue its loose monetary policy that has put downward pressure on the value of the yen.

U.S.-Japan Alliance. Last fall, the LDP passed controversial legislation that provides a legal basis for far-reaching defense reforms outlined in the 2015 U.S.-Japan defense guidelines. The implementation of these reforms has been slow, but Abe's strengthened position could accelerate the process.

Foreign Policy. The Abe Administration is likely to continue its support for the United States in regional hotspots, particularly the South China Sea, contributing to the Japan-China rivalry. Japan has tentatively pursued better relations with South Korea, though fraught issues of World War II-era history could complicate the rapprochement.

U.S. Base Relocation in Okinawa. The LDP candidate for Okinawa Prefecture lost to the opposition candidate in what was seen as a statement by Okinawan voters against the current plan to relocate the Futenma U.S. Marine Corps base.