The pre-term re-elections to the Lower House of the Japanese Parliament were held on December 14. The decision to do so was taken by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on November 18, 2014 in accordance with constitutional authorities.
As a rule, the prime minister invokes the pre-term re-election process in the Lower House of Parliament, when the ruling political establishment needs to gain public support from the population in the course of solving urgent government problems, as well as indirect approval of government measures already taken or planned, which were the focus of controversial public discussions.
It should be reminded that Shinzo Abe’s second term (since 2006-2007) as Prime Minister and the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) return to power had also been the consequence of the early parliamentary elections held in December 2012. Then, the elections had been necessitated by the urgent requirement to resolve the problem of the so-called “twisted parliament” where one of the leading parties controls one of its Houses, and vice versa.
The worst consequence of this “twisted parliament” was the actual paralysis of power, and, according to Abe, the country was “on the verge of a total catastrophe.” The overwhelming victory of the LDP in a coalition with its junior partner, the New Komeito Party (NKP), first in the elections to the Lower House, and then to the Upper House of Parliament (held respectively on December 16, 2012 and July 21, 2013) ensured the complete domination by the LDP-NKP tandem.
It has continued to this day, and was reaffirmed by the results of the elections on December 14, 2014. According to preliminary data, the LDP now gets 290 seats in parliament (compared to 295), NKP – 35 (compared to 31). Thus, the ruling tandem retained a qualified majority in the Lower House (you need to have 317 seats), which can be crucial considering the more and more obvious plans of the current government to conduct constitutional reform.
Perhaps the only notable negative outcome of the elections for the LDP was the defeat of all four party candidates in single-member districts of the Okinawa Prefecture. Which, however, was to be expected considering the sharply negative attitude to the Okinawan government’s plans for the withdrawal of the US military base “Futenma” from the city of Ginowan, but keeping it in Okinawa. Therefore, the previous month the LDP had lost the gubernatorial elections on the island.
The largest opposition block, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) will have 73 mandates (earlier- 62). Its leader, Banri Kaieda, was not re-elected to parliament, which is unprecedented for the leading opposition party in the history of the Japanese parliamentary system since 1949. Banri Kaieda is stepping down as leader of the DPJ, and this is the most striking indicator that the party continues to be in a state of serious crisis.
Today, hardly anyone would vouch for the DPJ “restoring its form,” by the next electoral cycle in 2016 either. Now, the party can only hope for a miracle, which could only happen as a result the LDP’s truly serious failures in some acute aspects of internal or external policy.
However, in this case, it is not a fact that primarily the DPJ will reap benefits from the potential errors made by the LDP. There is a new contender for the role of leader in the political struggle with the LDP in the opposition camp – the Japanese Communist Party (JCP). Almost tripling its number of available seats in the Lower House of Parliament (now there will be 21 instead of the previous 8) should be considered one of the most remarkable outcomes of the elections.
And this result cannot be considered entirely unexpected, since the process of the JCP’s gradual recovery of the popularity has been noted long ago. In February 2013, it was manifested in the elections to the Tokyo Council Prefecture and six months later, in the elections to the Upper House of Parliament.
In 2014, the same trend was confirmed during the first gubernatorial election in the Tokyo Prefecture, held in February, and the gubernatorial election in Okinawa Prefecture, which took place in November 2014. Some experts do not rule out the prospects of JCP’s recovery of its positions of the 1950s and 1980s and the possibility of once again becoming the main opposition force to the ruling bourgeois political elite of Japan.
Such a prospect would be likely if the current ruling party tandem, on the one hand, continues its unpopular policy of strengthening the country’s defense capabilities and strengthening its political and military alliance with the United States, and on the other hand – will not be able to overcome tensions with China and “negotiate” acceptable conditions for Japan joining the Trans-Pacific partnership (TPP) with the US.
All these issues were present during the public pre-election battles. However, the main topics were the various aspects of the current government’s economic policies, which were dubbed “Abenomics.” Having demonstrated an upward trend in the previous year, in 2014 it gradually slumped back to its state of “stagnation” “habitual” for the past 25 years.
A record low voter turnout (52.4%, which is 7% less than in similar elections in December 2012) can only be partly explained by snowfalls of the previous few days.
How can the results of the elections in one of the leading countries in the region and the world be assessed in the most general form? From a purely formal standpoint it might seem that Abe’s government has retained its carte blanche to continue the main directions of its domestic and foreign policy, formulated back in the 2012 election manifesto and implemented by the government during the past two years.
It seems, however, that “the scene after the battle” for the Lower House of the Japanese Parliament looks much more complicated and is more reminiscent of a minefield. Traversing it, the government will have to exercise extreme caution. Opinion polls show the public’s cautious attitude to the accelerated “normalization” of the country (the main component of which may be a revision of the anti-war Article 9 of the Constitution), the “unconditional” joining the TPP, the course for any large-scale resumption of nuclear power plant operation. That is, the key policy positions of the current government.
The results of the elections (in particular a significant reduction in voter turnout) show that in the absence (so far) of any significant alternative policy to the ruling party coalition, Japan’s population has taken a wait-and-see position. And this does not allow the Shinzo Abe’s government to “relax” during the next two years.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the Asia-Pacific region, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.“