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Showdown could reshape political scene

by Jun Hongo

The last House of Councilors election in 2007 heralded a change of regime, with the then ruling Liberal Democratic Party losing control of the chamber. That loss was followed by the swift resignations of two LDP prime ministers, before a crushing defeat in the House of Representatives poll last August saw the long dominant party ejected from power.

Fast-forward to the House of Councilors election set for July 11, and observers agree this year’s vote — the first to be held since the Democratic Party of Japan took power last summer — could again drastically shape politics.

“The focus is on whether the DPJ-led coalition can control a majority in the Upper House,” said Rei Shiratori, president of the Institute for Political Studies in Japan.

Shiratori explained that the stakes are high for both the ruling and opposition parties, with the DPJ seeking to expand its dominance beyond the House of Representatives while the LDP fights for its political life.

“But the DPJ’s push to raise the consumption tax is visibly having a negative impact on voter sentiment,” Shiratori said, adding that depending on election results, the ruling party could be forced to seek multiple coalition partners.

Up for grabs in this year’s election are 121 seats, or half of the Upper House’s 242 members. Of the 121, 73 will be elected from district voting and 48 from the proportional representation segment.

The magic number for the DPJ will be 60, since 62 of its incumbent members in the chamber are not up for re-election this year. If the party exceeds that target, it would give Prime Minister Naoto Kan command of over 122 seats, a majority in the Upper House.

With the DPJ holding 306 of the 484 seats in the Lower House, controlling a greater part in the upper chamber will ensure a smooth ride for Kan at least for the next three years.

A general election is not due until 2013 unless the prime minister dissolves the Lower House, and the next Upper House poll will be in the summer of that year. A comfortable victory on July 11 would also make Kan a certainty to win the DPJ presidential election scheduled for September.

“Securing a win in the Upper House election will realize a sound government,” Kan told a meeting of DPJ members earlier this month. If this goal is achieved, Kan, who formed his Cabinet on June 8, will go after weighty issues, including tax reform and fundamental shifts in the relationship between bureaucrats and the government.

Another upside to winning more than 60 seats will be that the DPJ won’t have to rely on a coalition arrangement, which has been a source of instability for the party.

Kan’s predecessor, Yukio Hatoyama, saw the Social Democratic Party quit the ruling bloc over the relocation of the U.S. Futenma air base, which in effect sealed his exit.

No single party has held a majority in both Diet chambers simultaneously since 1989, when the LDP lost big in the Upper House vote that year. The timing roughly coincides with the beginning of what is often called “the lost decade,” when the economic bubble burst and political instability set in.

Keio University professor Fukashi Horie acknowledged that the DPJ being in complete control of the Diet “could stabilize politics.” But he added that expecting an easy win is too optimistic since the party has failed to convince voters of its ability to govern during Hatoyama’s eight month stint.

For example, Horie said the DPJ is not off the hook over the political funds scandals that dogged the previous administration. An independent judicial panel is still mulling whether to indict kingpin Ichiro Ozawa over his fund management body’s shady funds, and a decision is expected soon.

“Ozawa’s case is not yet closed. If there is any development on the issue before election day, it could seriously influence the DPJ’s chances,” Horie said.

If the DPJ fails to win 60 seats, the second-best scenario for the party will be keeping an Upper House majority after adding the seats won by its small partner, Kokumin Shinto (People’s New Party).

With three of Kokumin Shinto’s Upper House members not facing re-election this year, the ruling coalition needs to add 57 seats to the 65 they together hold to gain the 122-seat majority in the chamber.

But depending on the small party is a path the DPJ would rather not take, with its chief, Shizuka Kamei, openly criticizing some of Kan’s policies.

During a debate involving nine leaders of major political parties held Tuesday, Kamei hit the DPJ’s push for a tax hike, saying Kan “does not understand how difficult the people’s lives are.”

Kamei, who clashed with Kan last year over his bill to roll back the postal system privatization, also reiterated his opposition to other DPJ goals, including granting foreign residents suffrage in local-level elections and allowing married couples to assume separate surnames.

“Distrust toward the DPJ runs deep within Kokumin Shinto, since Kan decided to close the Diet session without passing the postal reform bill,” analyst Shiratori said, hinting the crack between the two parties may have already developed into a chasm.

If the DPJ and Kokumin Shinto together fall short of a majority following the crucial vote, experts agree that major shifts will take place in politics.

Minor parties that were launched recently, including Your Party, could hold a swing vote and determine the fate of the DPJ, they said.

This, on the other hand, will be a wish come true for the LDP and its president, Sadakazu Tanigaki, who vowed to step down if his party fails to stop the ruling coalition from retaining its majority.

If the opposition camp prevents the ruling parties from gaining 122 seats, it will have veto power in the upper chamber even on bills passed by the House of Representatives. Since the DPJ and Kokumin Shinto are short of holding two-thirds of the Lower House required to override the upper chamber, the opposition camp will have a strong influence over the government.

That situation tripped up the LDP after the 2007 Upper House vote, and Tanigaki is ready to return the favor.

But the latest developments indicate a difficult campaign for the once-dominant party.