The campaign for the July 29 House of Councilors election officially kicked off Thursday, with the ruling coalition, reeling from a string of scandals involving Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet and the public pension debacle, facing a fierce battle with the opposition camp.
The stakes are high for the prime minister. If the coalition — the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito — suffers a serious setback, the pressure on Abe to step down will intensify. Even if he stays in power, the loss of a coalition majority in the upper chamber could trigger a realignment of parties, political observers say.
Unlike a Lower House election, a ruling bloc defeat in the Upper House poll would not necessarily force a change of government. Nevertheless, past Upper House races have had an impact. A major defeat in 1989 drove Sosuke Uno step down as prime minister. Ryutaro Hashimoto did likewise after a 1998 setback.
“This will be a very tough battle for the LDP,” said Rei Shiratori, president of the Institute for Political Studies in Japan and a professor of political science at Tokai University.
“Even if (the ruling bloc led by) Prime Minister Abe does not lose very badly and (he) avoids having to step down, his government would enter a difficult phase,” Shiratori said, referring to the troubles the ruling bloc would face trying to get bills passed by the Diet.
Experts are closely watching 29 single-seat constituencies, which account for as many as one-third of all the 47 prefectural constituencies. Battles in those districts are a zero-sum game, with only a single party winning in each prefecture.
In addition to the single-seat constituencies, there are 12 two-seat constituencies, five three-seat constituencies and one five-seat constituency, which is Tokyo.
The Democratic Party of Japan has placed particular emphasis on winning those single-seat districts, since many longtime LDP supporters in conservative rural areas have become less supportive of the LDP after Abe’s predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, worked to attract swing voters in big cities.
Many lightly populated areas of Japan, including Shikoku, Kyushu and the Hokuriku region, are also rapidly aging.
“People in those areas are not only very critical of the pension scandal, but also sensitive to the problem of disparity (between urban and rural areas and between the rich and the poor),” Shiratori said.
Mergers of regional cities and villages in recent years have also reduced the number of assembly members, many of whom had been local-level vote-gathering machines for the LDP. These changes appear to have benefited the DPJ, which is less established in rural areas.
According to observers, the main opposition party is likely to fare well not only in Iwate Prefecture, from where DPJ President Ichiro Ozawa hails, but also in Tottori, Shimane and other western Japan constituencies where the LDP had traditionally enjoyed easy victories.
“In the worst-case scenario, the LDP would gain only three seats — in Toyama, Ishikawa and Fukui prefectures — out of the 29 single-seat constituencies,” warned Shiratori, referring to the three prefectures in the Hokuriku region where conservative support for the LDP is strong.
People in the Tohoku region, the rice belt, have also become more critical of the ruling bloc over the years, following the introduction of policies by the LDP-led government to liberalize rice prices, import rice and reduce the number of paddies.
In Kyushu, sentiment is running against the ruling bloc because it has allowed disparities to worsen, according to Shiratori.
Well aware of the importance of the single-seat constituencies, Ozawa has been visiting these districts since last year, pledging subsidies for farmers.
But with so many swing voters in urban areas such as Tokyo and Kanagawa Prefecture yet to decide, it’s still too early to predict the election outcome.
“People say the last three days before the election always decide the outcome,” an LDP lawmaker close to Abe said on condition of anonymity.
Abe’s Cabinet has suffered a number of scandals in recent months, significantly damaging public support for his government.
In addition to the pension fiasco, in which the Social Insurance Agency mishandled more than 50 million premium payment records, political funds scandals have also dogged Abe’s Cabinet.
First was the December resignation of administrative reform minister Genichiro Sata amid a fund scandal.
Then in May, farm minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka, under a cloud of suspicion also for funds misappropriations as well as bid-rigging links, hanged himself.
A few weeks later, then Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma made remarks justifying the U.S. atomic bombings of Japan, spurring an outcry that led to his resignation on July 3. A political funds scandal involving a support group of new farm minister Norihiko Akagi broke last Saturday.
Reflecting public outrage, the approval rating for Abe’s Cabinet has fallen to a new low of 30.1 percent, according to the latest telephone poll conducted by Kyodo News last weekend.
In the same poll, 24.6 percent of the respondents said they would vote for the DPJ or a DPJ candidate, while only 17.6 percent said they intended to vote for the LDP.
The IPSJ’s Shiratori expects the LDP to win somewhere between 39 and 52 seats of the 63 seats it has up for grabs in the chamber. Meanwhile, the DPJ is likely to capture somewhere between 49 and 57 seats, compared with the 31 it has being contested, he said.
Toshihiko Uji, a veteran political journalist at Tokyo Shimbun known for his election analysis, said the LDP alone would need to keep at least 51 seats to retain the ruling bloc’s majority, assuming New Komeito meets its target of 13 seats. The coalition currently holds 58 seats not up for re-election.
The chamber has 242 seats, half of which are up for grabs in the coming poll.
Uji said pressure on Abe to step down is likely to heighten if the LDP gains no more than 44 seats — the number of seats the LDP won under Hashimoto in 1998, when the lingering economic slowdown and his flip-flopping on tax cuts sank his popularity.
Many observers say failure to win a majority in the Upper House could prompt the LDP to invite exiles back into the fold, including Upper House member Hiroyuki Arai, who last week said he was leaving New Party Nippon.
Arai is one of the so-called postal reform rebels who got booted from the LDP for voting in 2005 against then Prime Minister Koizumi’s bill to privatize the postal system.
If Arai and the others don’t bite, Abe may turn to Kokumin Shinto (People’s New Party), which is made up of former LDP lawmakers who also voted against the postal reform, they said.
“Unless the LDP loses and the number of its new seats drops to 44 or below, Abe and his camp will continue to stay in power,” Uji said. “In any event, the outcome will be decided by which way the political winds are blowing in the final week.”