Written by Lorenzo Costantini
Prime Minister Shinzō Abe dissolved the lower house and called an early election in December 2014. The contest was also regarded as a referendum on his growth strategy, widely known as ‘Abenomics’. Taking advantage of opposition parties’ weakness and inability to conduct a successful campaign at such short notice, and with the lowest turnout in post-war Japan, Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party emerged as the big winner, securing him a third term as premier.
The Japanese Parliament
The Japanese Diet (Kokkai or National Assembly) is composed of the House of Representatives (Shūgiin) – the lower house – and the House of Councillors (Sangiin) – the upper house. The Prime Minister and at least 50% of ministers of state must be appointed from among Diet members. The Cabinet is held to be accountable to the Diet: if the lower house passes a no-confidence resolution, or rejects a confidence resolution, the government must resign, prompting the organisation of general elections.
With five fewer seats than in the previous term, the House of Representatives comprises 475 members elected for a four-year term; 295 in single-seat constituencies and the remaining 180 by proportional representation. Although the two chambers share legislative powers, the lower house prevails in the legislative process, as it can transform into law, by a majority of two thirds of its members, draft legislation rejected by the upper house. It is also empowered to adopt the final decision on the budget and on the approval of international treaties. However, the House of Representatives can be dissolved by the Cabinet. The House of Councillors is composed of 242 members elected for a six-year term; 146 of them are elected under a first-past-the-post system in 47 prefectural constituencies, and the remaining 96 by proportional representation. Every three years half the upper house’s membership is renewed in a mid-term election. In contrast to the House of Representatives, the upper house cannot be dissolved by any other power.
Outcome of the December 2014 ‘snap election’ to the lower house
In a move to ask voters to approve his proposal to postpone a consumption-tax increase to 2017, and also to entrust him with the continuation of the ‘Abenomics’ programme against the backdrop of a prolonged economic recession, Prime Minister Abe dissolved the lower house and called an election on 14 December 2014. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) emerged as the big winner, and the two-party alliance it formed with the Kōmeitō confirmed its substantial majority in parliament: 325 of 475 seats in the House of Representatives and 134 of 242 seats in the House of Councillors. However, the post-war record low turnout (52%) could reflect both the disillusionment of voters with mainstream parties and the lack of a convincing alternative. There are only 38 women members in the upper house, while after December their number in the lower house increased from 39 to barely 45 – not too surprising a result considering that Japanese politics is still largely male-dominated. Having been re-elected for a third mandate, Abe confirmed almost all the members of the previous Cabinet, the only exception being the new defence minister.
Main political parties
Jiyūminshutō (shortened Jimintō. Liberal Democratic Party – LDP) was in office in one-party rule almost continuously from its foundation in 1955 until 1993, and again, after a brief spell out of power in 1993-94, until 2009. Since 2012, it has been the leading force in successive coalition governments. The pre-eminent position of LDP was partly due to under-representation of the urban population in electoral constituencies, since, thanks to LDP governments’ policy of rice-production subsidies and protectionist measures, the party’s stronghold has long been in more conservative rural areas. This is still an issue, despite a 1994 reform of the electoral system. Apart from farmers’ organisations, until recently traditional support groups for LDP have included small businessmen, civil servants and the construction sector, the latter often being the
beneficiaries of public works programmes. Due to this decades-long hegemony, however, LDP is also associated with corruption scandals and a hereditary political elite. As to the party’s ideology, neoliberalism in the economic sector and nationalist stances became increasingly important from the 1990s. Prime Minister since December 2012’s elections, Shinzō Abe is an important figure in the LDP. Previously premier for only one year (2006-07), he is often labelled a conservative nationalist, who aims for a more assertive role for the country in foreign policy, under the motto ‘Japan is back’. One of the key objectives of Abe’s growth strategy (‘Abenomics‘) is promoting women’s participation in the labour market and increasing the percentage of women in management positions (‘Womenomics’).
Minshutō (Democratic Party of Japan – DPJ) was founded in 1998 mainly as an alternative force to LDP. Besides political figures from small opposition parties and the Socialist Party, however, a number of prominent defectors from LDP were paramount in the party’s creation and early political strategy. In August 2009 elections the DPJ won a majority of seats in the House of Representatives, in what could have been seen as a referendum on the performance of the LDP during a period of economic stagnation. Seiken kōtai (‘regime change’), the slogan of that DPJ campaign, summarised the ambition to put an end to the LDP’s predominance. The DPJ promised to tame the bureaucratic elite and reduce its influence over policy-making. It put emphasis on social-welfare spending rather than on public-works projects, and also on a less subordinate attitude in Japan’s security association with the US. But after a three-year spell in power (2009‑12), the DPJ has resumed its role as the main opposition party. Although in December 2014 the party increased its lower house representation from 62 to 72 members, it failed to persuade the Japanese to vote against ‘Abenomics’, which it had promised in its manifesto to end. The DPJ’s leader Banri Kaieda lost his Diet seat and resigned immediately after the election.
Kōmeitō (Clean Government Party) was founded in 1964 and re-established in 1998 (accordingly, it is sometimes referred to as New Kōmeitō). From the very beginning it has been closely associated with the Sōka Gakkai, a Buddhist lay movement that spread rapidly across Japan during the 1950s and 1960s and today is active worldwide. However, the party claims to respect the principle of the separation of religion and state enshrined in the constitution. Although Kōmeitō’s earlier ideology was left-leaning and pacifist, through alliances with the LDP at local level in the 1980s and 1990s they shifted toward a centrist stance. Since then Kōmeitō has partnered the LDP in a series of coalition governments, and is the junior ally in the two-party coalition supporting Abe’s current Cabinet. While party leader Natsuo Yamaguchi has approved Abe’s proposal to reinterpret the constitution so as to give a more assertive role to Japan’s military, this move could also alienate that part of Kōmeitō’s electoral base which still subscribes firmly to pacifist ideas.
Other political players
A few conservative formations have emerged in the recent past, mostly from other parties merging or splitting. Ishin no Tō (Japan Innovation Party) resulted from the merger of two smaller parties in September 2014. Having lost only one seat in the December election, it remains the second-largest opposition group in the House of Representatives, with 41 seats. It advocates a reform of the centralised state structure in order to empower local governments and insists on preserving Japan’s traditional values and culture.
Jisedai no Tō (The Party for Future Generations), founded in August 2014 with an essentially neoconservative platform, upholds strong nationalist ideas concerning, for example, Japan’s self-defence and security rights. Following the December election, however, it dropped from 20 to only two seats in the lower house, and thus failed to emerge, along with the Japan Innovation Party, as a third force in addition to the LDP/Kōmeitō alliance and the DPJ. The party’s prominent chief advisor and former Tokyo governor Shintarō Ishihara lost his Diet seat and decided to put an end to a political career spanning almost 50 years.
Shakaiminshutō (shortened Shamintō. Social Democratic Party – SDP) is the political heir of the Nihon Shakaitō (Japan Socialist Party), the largest opposition force during the LDP’s rule in the 1955-93 period. The SDP denounces the failure of ‘Abenomics’, calls for the maintenance of Japan’s pacifist constitution and rejects the use of nuclear power. However, with a total of only five representatives in the Diet, its role in the opposition has been marginal. Today’s main left-wing force is Nihon Kyōsantō (Japanese Communist Party – JCP), the country’s oldest surviving party – it was founded in 1922. Attracting more young voters and those seeking a genuine alternative to Abe’s policies, the JCP more than doubled its seats in the December election (from 8 to 21), regaining the right to present draft bills in the lower house.