The Upper House election on Sunday, which gave voters another chance to pass judgment on the 6 ½ years of the Abe administration, ended with the Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito ruling coalition alliance winning a majority of the seats contested, maintaining a stable political foothold for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Since returning to the helm of the LDP in 2012, Abe has now led the ruling coalition to victory in six consecutive nationwide Diet elections. As the results show, voters appear to have responded to Abe’s campaign call for “political stability.”
The ruling coalition and its pro-amendment allies lost their narrow two-thirds majority of the Upper House — which is necessary in both Diet chambers to initiate an amendment to the Constitution. But that was not surprising since the half of the Upper House seats up for grabs in Sunday’s election were last contested in the 2013 race, when the LDP, shortly after its stunning return to the government’s helm the previous year, won a landslide victory and claimed a particularly large number of seats. It was therefore deemed inevitable that the party would lose some seats this time.
The opposition camp, dwarfed by the ruling coalition and as fragmented as ever, did manage to put a dent in the coalition’s victory by winning in 10 of 32 crucial electoral districts across the country in which one seat each was contested — just shy of their wins in 11 such constituencies in the 2016 election. The opposition parties succeeded in doing so by endorsing common candidates in all 32 constituencies against the ruling coalition instead of competing against each other.
Still, the opposition parties overall were not a formidable competition for Abe’s ruling alliance. While the largest opposition force, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, nearly doubled its pre-election strength, others like the Democratic Party for the People and the Japanese Communist Party lost some seats. Clearly, the opposition camp is not viewed by voters as a viable alternative to the ruling coalition. The sluggish voter turnout in Sunday’s election — at 48.8 percent, the second-lowest on record — may well be blamed at least partly on the lack of competition in national politics due to the opposition’s weakness.
The question going forward is how the Abe administration will spend the political capital gained by its comfortable Diet majority. Intent on amending the Constitution while he’s in office, Abe has indicated that he will still seek to build a consensus over the LDP’s proposal to revise the war-renouncing Article 9 — by legitimizing the role of the Self-Defense Forces — through discussions in the Diet involving pro-amendment opposition lawmakers. The day after the election, Abe insisted that the voters’ judgment was that the Diet “should at least discuss” an amendment to the Constitution.
The loss of the LDP and its allies’ two-thirds majority in the Upper House will require Abe and the party to tap the opposition parties to build such a consensus. Moreover, the LDP and Komeito, which may now have a greater say within the coalition following the LDP’s loss of its single-party majority in the upper chamber, remain divided on changing Article 9. As if to distance the party from Abe’s enthusiasm on the issue, Komeito chief Natsuo Yamaguchi told reporters that amending the Constitution was not a subject of discussion in the campaign for Sunday’s election.
On the other hand, other pressing challenges requiring fundamental policy responses, including the nation’s rapidly aging and declining population, which Abe once dubbed a “national crisis,” await the government. Public concern over the viability of the public pension system, which will come under greater pressure as the population ages and the pool of working-age people that sustains the system shrinks, was exposed by a report by a Financial Services Agency council released just before the start of the Upper House election campaign. Policy discussions on the pension system must follow when the assessment of the pension finances, due every five years and now deemed late, is released after the election.
The extended boom cycle of Japan’s economy, which has coincided with Abe’s time in office and shored up his administration’s popular support, is apparently losing steam due to growing uncertainties over the world economy and the trade conflict between the United States and China. The consumption tax hike to 10 percent — which the administration has postponed twice since 2015 to avert the risk of derailing the economy from its recovery path — is finally set to take place in October. The promised structural reforms of the economy to generate new avenues of growth remain undelivered.
Where and how to make use of its still abundant political resources will be a key post-election test for the Abe administration.