The July 21 Upper House election will be yet another test by voters of the achievements and policies of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration. Abe, now the second-longest-serving prime minister in Japan’s modern history, stresses the importance of political stability as he calls on voters to support his ruling coalition. But he also calls the upcoming race an occasion to ask voters if they support his bid to amend the Constitution, which he wants changed while he’s still in office.
Half of the Upper House seats come up for grabs every six years. The half this time around were elected in 2013, when Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party scored a particularly strong win, gaining 65 of the 121 contested seats. Since it is considered extremely difficult for the LDP to replicate its 2013 performance, the focus is on how far the LDP can contain its losses from its pre-election strength, and the party has set a target of its coalition with Komeito together winning 63 seats, a majority of the 124 contested. However, the real focus will be on whether the ruling coalition and its allies will maintain the two-thirds majority of the chamber (including seats not contested) needed to initiate a constitutional amendment.
Since Abe returned to the government’s helm in 2012, he has led the ruling coalition to big wins in five consecutive nationwide Diet elections: three times in the Lower House and twice in the Upper House. As an administration already in its seventh year, Abe’s Cabinet retains fairly solid popular approval ratings.
The opposition camp remains as fragmented and weak as ever. All of the parties — even combined — are far behind Abe’s LDP in terms of popular support and are not deemed to pose a potent threat to the ruling coalition. Still, they hope to repeat their modest success in the last triennial election in 2016, when their candidates won in 11 of the crucial 32 districts that elect a single lawmaker each.
As in the 2016 race, the opposition parties, including the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and the Japanese Communist Party, have managed to coordinate their candidacies in all 32 constituencies to avoid competing with each other.
Abe is said to have once entertained the idea of dissolving the Lower House for a snap election to be held simultaneously with the Upper House race — a strategy that he hoped would work to the advantage of the LDP. The prime minister eventually gave up on the idea, reportedly based on a forecast that the party can perform well enough by holding the Upper House election alone. At the same time, the timing of this election is not optimal for his ruling alliance given that the government is raising the consumption tax to 10 percent in October — a hike that Abe postponed twice earlier out of fears of derailing the economic recovery, which has sustained his solid popular support.
The extended boom cycle of the economy — claimed by the government as the longest in postwar history after starting just as Abe returned to power at the end of 2012 — is now deemed to be losing steam due to growing uncertainty over global demand and the bitter U.S.-China trade disputes. The latest tankan survey by the Bank of Japan showed that business sentiment among big manufacturing firms is at its worst since September 2016. In past major Diet elections, Abe pressed voters to choose whether to give him mandate to continue his trademark Abenomics policies — and won. But in a recent Kyodo News survey, a majority of the respondents called for a review of Abenomics.
The same survey shows a majority of voters endorsing Abe’s diplomacy, and the LDP hopes to carry the momentum gained from the prime minister hosting the Group of 20 summit in Osaka last week into the campaign. Much of the prime minister’s specific diplomatic agenda, however, is making little headway. The peace treaty negotiations with Russia — which Abe had earlier hoped would achieve a breakthrough upon Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Osaka — is now stalled, while his bid to hold top-level talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has gone nowhere.
As a policy issue, the opposition camp hopes to seize on a recent Financial Services Agency report that estimates an average household of retirees would need ¥20 million in savings to cover retirement expenses as ammunition to attack Abe and the ruling coalition over problems in the public pension system, while the prime minister insists that sustainability of the pension system remains solid. This is indeed an issue that attracts the interest of many voters since it directly relates to their concerns over retirement. Rather than relegate the issue to partisan debates in the campaign, the parties should engage in constructive and easy to understand discussions over the future of the public pension system.