On Tuesday, four opposition parties jointly submitted a no-confidence motion against the Cabinet in what has essentially become an annual tradition in the Japanese Diet.
Had the motion passed, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga would have been obliged to dissolve the Lower House and call a general election. But it did not pass; instead, the opposition parties lost by a landslide margin of 134 votes to 322.
This outcome was a foregone conclusion and the opposition’s annual exercise in futility may leave many outside observers scratching their heads. Why would the opposition submit a no-confidence motion knowing full well it would get voted down? Also, why did Liberal Democratic Party Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai threaten a snap election despite knowing his party could easily handle the no-confidence vote?
To understand the answers to those questions, we must look at no-confidence motions from three angles: their characteristics in Japanese politics; the manner in which opposition parties use them; and the manner in which the ruling parties employ them.
A vote of no-confidence is taken in the Diet as a check and balance to the administration. The basis of the no-confidence motion is Article 69 of the Constitution, which simply mentions the necessity to dissolve the House of Representatives and to call for a general election should a no-confidence motion pass.
However, it does not offer more specificity than that. For further details, one must go to the House of Representative rules; in particular, Article 28-3 which clarifies that at least 50 Lower House members must endorse the motion for it to go to a vote. After that, a simple majority is enough to pass the motion on the Diet floor.
Given the LDP’s command over Japanese politics since 1955, the instances of no-confidence motions actually succeeding are rare. In fact, in the past five decades, there have been only two: first in 1980 when then-Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira’s Cabinet lost 243 to 187 and again in 1993 when Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa was toppled in a vote of 255 to 220. Since 1993, there have been 26 no-confidence motions, none of which have succeeded in ousting a sitting administration.
That has not stopped opposition parties from using the motions anyway, and the timing of the average no-confidence vote helps explain why. Almost every no-confidence motion comes at the scheduled end of a Diet session. The rationale for this is that the opposition parties want to show that they will not go gently into the recess.
In what we saw this week, it is likely that opposition party leaders also saw this Diet conclusion as more important since it would be their last chance for a formal demonstration of anti-LDP unity before they are staring down a Lower House election.
The problem is, these no-confidence motions have become a “Catch-22” for the opposition. If they do not carry on the annual tradition of pushing a no-confidence motion, the ruling coalition can employ the narratives that the opposition potentially supports the government or that the opposition is too fractured even to take a stand. Conversely, if opposition parties do put forward a no-confidence motion and it fails, that actually demonstrates how fractured or impotent they are.
This most recent no-confidence motion certainly demonstrated the weakness of the opposition. Those parties could not even corral all their own members into voting for the motion, as thirteen either abstained or voted in support of the Suga administration.
The move will also arm the LDP-Komeito ruling coalition with the talking point that the opposition parties are hypocritical. For months, opposition leaders like Yukio Edano have been decrying a possible snap election since it would force a nationwide campaign and election during a pandemic. However, if the opposition parties’ no-confidence motion had actually succeeded, then a nationwide election is exactly what would have resulted. Without a doubt, many will be questioning the logic of such a decision.
Truly, this was a misstep by the opposition parties and one that will only boost an administration that to this point had been flagging. Now, coming off a relatively successful G7 summit and with a no-confidence motion firmly trounced, Suga and his ruling coalition have regained some of their footing heading into the final hill climb of the political race that will culminate later this year.
That then leaves the issue of how the ruling party uses a no-confidence motion. While it may seem counterintuitive that a party would seek to oust its own leadership, in the case of the LDP, one must always remember that there are multiple, formal factions that espouse different policy preferences and all have their eyes on the country’s top job.
LDP heavyweights use no-confidence motions as leverage to push their own agendas. We saw it in 1985 when then-Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone tried to abolish the de facto ceiling of 1% of GDP spending on defense, with three faction heads threatening to withdraw their support if the opposition issued a no-confidence motion. We saw it again in 1993 when LDP factions defected and allowed Prime Minister Miyazawa to lose his office.
While there was nothing nearly so dramatic in this recent no-confidence vote, knowing that it presented a political opportunity for LDP heavyweights helps us understand why the party’s secretary-general, Toshihiro Nikai, threatened a snap election if the opposition parties submitted a no-confidence motion. At first glance, the answer might seem that the threat would discourage them from doing so, even if Suga had no real intention of dissolving the Lower House.
However, there is danger associated with empty threats, so then why would Nikai do it? Moreover, why would he advise Suga to go for a snap election even though the prime minister is personally opposed to the idea?
The answer is most likely that a pre-Olympics snap election is Nikai’s personal policy preference, and that makes sense. Nikai went all in on both Abe and Suga, which has enabled him to earn the distinction as the longest serving secretary-general of the LDP. However, his position as the party’s de facto number two and his personal role in engineering Suga’s prime ministership means that his political future is tied to what happens with the next general election and next LDP presidential race.
Nikai knows that a pre-Olympics snap election may come with bad optics; but he also knows that a post-Olympics election could carry the weight of whatever failures might come this summer. For Nikai, getting the Lower House election out of the way early frees him up for the politicking that will be necessary when Suga has to run for re-election as party president in September. All he needed was something to justify his outspoken preference for a snap election, and the no-confidence motion was just that.
All told, what we saw this week was neither new nor groundbreaking. The opposition demonstrated that it is still floundering and searching for a cohesive approach to challenging the ruling coalition, and we are seeing at least one LDP leader trying to make moves ahead of two notable elections for party members.
Still, as routine as it may seem, the no-confidence motion does afford a window through which to observe some of the peculiarities of Japanese politics.
Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He previously served in the Japanese government as a Mansfield fellow.
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