The Democratic Party of Japan-led ruling coalition lost its Upper House majority on Sunday as Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s sudden emphasis on tax reform pushed voters back to the Liberal Democratic Party.
Of the 121 seats up for grabs, the DPJ secured 44, compared with 51 for the LDP.
The LDP, which had 38 seats up for contention, emerged as the victor in the election and was set to secure far more than the 71 seats it had going in.
The DPJ, which had 116 seats in the chamber, ended up with fewer than the 54 it was trying to protect.
The national election marked the first major test for the DPJ and its minor partner, Kokumin Shinto (People’s New Party), since the DPJ ousted the LDP from the helm of government in a historic Lower House election some 10 months ago.
It also gave voters a chance to pass judgment on Kan’s decision to broach an election taboo by raising the issue of a consumption tax hike.
The result will likely throw national politics into chaos for the time being as the DPJ decides what to do with Kan and throws feelers out for new coalition partners.
At a news conference held after midnight, Kan admitted that the DPJ’s strategy got twisted up after he mentioned the possibility of raising the consumption tax. He said his efforts weren’t enough to convince the public of the need to correct the nation’s dire fiscal situation.
“As Japan’s finance minister (before becoming prime minister), I strongly felt the need to try to avoid a fiscal crisis like the one in Greece,” Kan said. “There may have been a gap between me and the public” on fiscal matters.
Kan vowed to keep leading the nation and to learn a bitter lesson from Sunday’s defeat.
Although the DPJ is assured of remaining in power thanks to its comfortable majority in the more powerful House of Representatives, a loss in the upper chamber will clearly hamstring Kan’s administration.
LDP President Sadakazu Tanigaki said on NHK that he will continue to lead the main opposition party since he has fulfilled his vow to block the DPJ from gaining a majority.
As election unfolded, Kokumin Shinto policy chief Mikio Shimoji said the ruling coalition will have to find new partners so the coalition can pursue its legislative agenda.
“We’ll think about it because we’re short on numbers,” he said on a TV program after the polls had closed.
Touching on the possibility of teaming up with the DPJ, Your Party chief Yoshimi Watanabe hinted that an alliance is possible, depending on certain policy items, such as civil service reform. Forming an official coalition, however, is not an option, he said.
Your Party secured 10 seats, while New Komeito, the Japanese Communist Party, Kokumin Shinto, Shinto Kaikaku (New Renaissance Party) and the Social Democratic Party were all struggling to stay even.
The election for half the 242 seats in the Upper House came as the nation continues to exit a two-decade economic slump exacerbated by a host of challenges brought on by drastic demographic and other social changes, ranging from a rapidly aging and shrinking population to disintegrating community bonds.
A total of 437 candidates vied for the 121 seats.
Voter turnout came to 58.09 percent, down slightly from the 2007 Upper House election.
In a sign of early interest, the 16-day early voting period that began June 25 saw ballots cast by 12 million people, or 11.56 percent of all registered voters — a record high for an Upper House election, the internal affairs ministry said.
A pre-election survey by Kyodo News indicated that the DPJ and Kokumin Shinto were unlikely to win the combined 56 seats needed to maintain control of the chamber.
On its own, the survey said the DPJ was likely to get 50 seats, at best. Kan’s target was 54, the same number it had up for grabs.
The DPJ came to power in September, riding a landslide win in the Lower House election the previous month on promises to cut wasteful government spending and put more cash into the hands of people in the prime of their lives.
The Upper House poll was the first major test for Kan, who took over June 8 for Yukio Hatoyama, who resigned after eight months in office as money scandals and policy flip-flops eroded his popularity, especially after reneging on a campaign vow to move U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma outside of Okinawa.
The DPJ, which has 62 seats that weren’t being contested this time, needed 60 to have a majority of its own and pass bills without help from other parties.
Kokumin Shinto, which had six seats in the upper chamber, had three seats in play.
It is extremely difficult for a single party to gain control of both chambers. The last time it happened was in 1989.
The DPJ remains in power regardless of the outcome because it already controls the Lower House.
Still, the loss of the majority means Kan’s grip on the government is almost certain to slip and that rifts inside his party will deepen ahead of its presidential election in September.
Kan, the fifth prime minister since 2006, made fiscal consolidation the heart of his party’s 17-day election campaign.
Shortly after becoming prime minister and head of his party, Kan’s Cabinet enjoyed approval ratings of around 60 percent to 70 percent, marking a dramatic rebound from the final days of the Hatoyama team, whose ratings eventually sank below 20 percent.
But the high expectations for Kan — Japan’s first leader in 14 years who wasn’t born into a blue-blood political family — have waned, and the Cabinet’s ratings have fallen over 20 points in the past month.
The drop was in part due to Kan’s proposal to launch cross-party talks on a proposal to hike the 5 percent consumption tax sometime after the poll to pay off the public debt and finance the rapidly graying society’s snowballing social welfare costs.
About 100 million people aged 20 or older were eligible to vote Sunday.
Upper House elections are often a barometer of whether a prime minister can build a stable government. Many past leaders, including Ryutaro Hashimoto in 1998 and Shinzo Abe in 2007, stepped down following crushing defeats.
However, Junichiro Koizumi parlayed a landslide victory in the 2001 election to stay in power for five years through 2006 — one of the longest runs in recent memory.
The balloting did not proceed without mishaps.
Election officials in Unzen, Nagasaki Prefecture, gave ballots for electoral and proportional representation constituencies in the wrong order to 19 voters, the local election board said, noting the votes will be invalidated.
The 19 voters came to the voting station at 7 a.m., when it opened, and received the wrong papers by hand from the officials, who noticed the mistake 10 minutes later.
In Tsushima, also in Nagasaki, the start of voting was delayed by 10 minutes to an hour at 10 polling stations because heavy rain and flooding prevented election officials from getting there in time.
The city of Habikino, Osaka Prefecture, mistakenly handed to 27 people two sheets of voting paper which were both for the proportional representation system, although voters must be given one for a constituency and one for proportional representation.