Commentary / Japan

For Japan, Upper House results signal stability

by Michael Macarthur Bosack

In Sunday’s Upper House election — perhaps the least contentious national contest since the early 2000s — the ruling Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito coalition capitalized on the Japanese public’s general acceptance of the status quo to retain its control of the Diet chamber.

Now that the election is over, there are some key milestones on the political calendar ahead. The first thing observers are likely to see in the next few days is a switchover of a handful of politicians between parties. It is common for some independents to join an organized party or to see politicians jump from one party to another. This usually results in one to five changes to seat totals after the election is done. Given the results, these individual moves will have little effect on the overall post-election power balance in the Diet.

The next thing that will happen is an extraordinary session of the Diet to formalize the results of the Upper House election. The Diet will convene solely for that purpose before closing again for the next couple of months.

Following that will be the first real indicator of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s power following the election: the Cabinet reshuffle. Japanese media reports suggest that September is the window for the reshuffle, but precedent from this administration shows it could be as soon as early August to put the Cabinet on good footing with the public following the election. The reshuffle will be the most important indicator of Abe’s near-term political capital and policy agenda, as it reflects how much jockeying is happening behind the closed doors of his Liberal Democratic Party. It may also give some indication as to whom Abe is grooming as his successor. Observers should watch to see how many of Abe’s friends and allies fill the ranks compared to those from rival LDP factions.

Abe’s available political capital will influence his agenda for the longer extraordinary session of the Diet that will open this fall. Typically beginning sometime in October, this session can be used to tackle party priorities that did not make the legislative calendar earlier in the year or controversial bills that must be completed before the next year’s regular session. The results of this election suggest that Abe will avoid controversy, choosing instead to focus on the scheduled consumption tax hike.

Now that the Upper House election is out of the way, the Abe administration has no reason to put the consumption tax hike off any further. The administration had already postponed it twice from 2015 to now, and come October, we will most likely see the tax increase from 8 to 10 percent. Given the impact to near-term domestic spending, the Abe administration will probably dedicate its legislative effort to minimizing the negative impact the tax hike has on domestic households.

But what of amending the Constitution? The one question that many observers and analysts are asking is what happens to this initiative. In short, the results of this election suggest that any proposal for a constitutional amendment will not move forward until after the 2020 Tokyo Olympics at the earliest.

Like other elections before this, Abe described constitutional amendment as one of his key policy priorities during the campaign, but given the results, he will have to think twice about moving forward on it. From a public mandate perspective, the administration will be hard pressed to claim that the Upper House election signaled public support for the initiative when the coalition lost seats.

Even if Abe had a strong public mandate, the LDP still has a numbers issue. It takes a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Diet to initiate a constitutional amendment and put it to a public referendum. The narrow two-thirds majority of pro-amendment parties in the Upper House no longer exists as a result of Sunday’s vote, meaning the LDP would have to garner additional support from other opposition parties like the Democratic Party for the People. This means Abe still has three major negotiating steps before he can guarantee passage of a proposed amendment in the Diet.

First, he must gain consensus within his own party on the amendment proposal. After nearly seven years in office and several promises that he will introduce the amendment in the “next Diet session,” Abe has still not gotten the necessary LDP consensus on what should actually be changed in the Constitution.

Second, Abe must gain Komeito’s acceptance. Even though Abe’s envisioned amendment proposal aligns with Komeito policy, it does not mean the party will immediately accept it. Komeito understands the bargaining chip this represents, so there will be a negotiation with the LDP for policy concessions somewhere, even if not directly related to constitutional amendment. That process will take time and deliberation.

Third, Abe would have to get support from additional opposition parties. Like Komeito, these parties understand the value of their votes to Abe, and they will make him pay for it. Even if Abe were willing to negotiate a deal for support, he may not have the political capital or the policy flexibility to satisfy the demands that these opposition parties will make.

Certainly, Abe could bypass any or all of these steps and introduce a constitutional amendment to the Diet, but he would do so with greater risk than he is probably willing to accept. If the amendment dies in the Diet, resurrecting the initiative may add years to the political process necessary to achieve amendment. Abe will be wary of this, just as he will be of any other controversial moves that could impede his ability of running the government until at least the conclusion of the 2020 Olympics.

In sum, the results of the Upper House elections promise exactly what Abe campaigned upon: stability. Observers should expect the Japanese government to stay its course without any major shifts until after the Tokyo Olympics. By then, that major milestone will be complete, Abe will have earned the title of longest continuously serving postwar prime minister and the next Lower House election will be looming. At that point, we may see a more aggressive Abe administration, but for now, stability is the key for his administration.

Based in Niigata, Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He was the deputy chief of government relations at Headquarters, U.S. Forces Japan, and is a former officer in the U.S. Air Force.

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