The Upper House election results seem to show that voters did not desire major change. In the election campaign, the ruling parties of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the Komeito raised the banner of “political stability,” while the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and other opposition parties spoke of “honest politics” and “prioritizing household budgets.” Neither, though, was able to stir up much of a tailwind for themselves. The debate was lackluster. In the end, the ruling parties, which have an edge in regional areas, took the majority of the Upper House seats up for grabs, winning the election with a similar margin as three years ago.
It is always hard to read the people’s sentiment from an Upper House election. Unlike Lower House elections, Upper House elections are not an opportunity to select the administration. The timing of the election cannot be freely chosen so there is not necessarily a clear focal issue that attracts people’s interest.
Ruling parties sought safe route
This time in particular, speculations were flying that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would dissolve the Lower House and call a double election. For this reason, the people likely lost interest the moment Abe shelved the idea. The voter turnout rate was the second lowest in history, falling below 50%. This may be disappointing for Upper House members, but some commented that “[the election] is like a B Team game held to fill the hole left after the A Team game has been cancelled.”
One of the reasons the election was like that is because the LDP set its goal for this election as “not losing.” The seats up for grabs in Sunday’s election were those the LDP had won in 2013 when the party won the most seats ever, riding high with Abe’s exceptional popularity at that time. Another factor is the basic rule of thumb that Upper House elections held in the Year of the Boar that overlap with the nationwide unified local elections do not produce revolutionary results. It had been anticipated that a certain number of seats would be lost.
To ensure the election would not result in a major defeat, the ruling parties took the safe route and did not submit bills to this year’s ordinary Diet session that would give rise to the ruling and opposition parties going into battle formation. Since the 2012 Lower House race, where the ruling parties lost the reins of government, the ruling parties have introduced a catchphrase as an election drew near. Past examples include “women’s participation and advancement in the workplace,” “dynamic engagement of all citizens,” and “human resources development revolution.” This time there was no such catchphrase.
In other words, the ruling parties did not argue the opposition parties down but took the strategy of not giving fodder with which the opposition parties could outargue them.
Politics is a power struggle so it is important to have a strategy for winning an election. Even though six and a half years have passed since the LDP regained control of the government, the highlight of Prime Minister Abe’s campaign speeches was “Would it be okay to return to the nightmarish era when the Democratic Party of Japan was in charge?” It is regrettable that this was the high point of his speeches.
Prime Minister Abe has emphasized that Japan does not have the luxury of standing idle. We would like to see him build on the foundation of “political stability” earned in this election and earnestly tackle such issues as restoring confidence in the social security system, including pensions, healthcare, and nursing care, and reconstructing public finances so that debt is not passed on to the next generation.
It is inconceivable that even the person in charge of steering the government can be allowed to take a wait-and-see attitude because voters are not vocal about their lack of viable options.
The LDP set constitutional amendment as their top campaign pledge, and whether the pro-amendment forces would be able to maintain control of two-thirds of the seats of the Upper House in the recent election was closely watched. In the end, the pro-amendment camp was unable to.
Not to downplay the significance of that, but pro-amendment forces have held a two-thirds majority of both houses of the Diet for the past three years and yet debate on the Constitution has been at even more of a standstill than before. What is important is not the numbers but creating a forum for the ruling and opposition parties to engage in real debate. The Commission on the Constitution in each house should periodically hold meetings, and each party should state its case.
The question of whether to amend the Constitution or not will be decided by a national referendum in the end. We would like to see the ruling parties consider in a levelheaded fashion whether they will be able to gain the understanding of voters by pushing Diet initiation of proposals.
Opposition parties lacked strategy
Without question, it is the opposition parties more than the ruling parties that are responsible for the public’s lack of engagement with the Upper House election. Even if the defeat in the Lower House election two years ago can be considered inevitable to a certain degree because the Democratic Party had split right before the election over differences in views on the best direction for the party, the opposition camp has lacked a strategy since then as well, being unable to regroup or to form new policies.
Symbolic of this is their giving the impression of hemming and hawing over whether to submit a no-confidence motion against the cabinet during the final days of the ordinary Diet session amid speculation of a double election. In other words, they were seen as being “first and foremost concerned about retaining their own seats.”
Among the opposition camp, it was the new political group called Reiwa Shinsengumi that attracted the most attention. It is unlikely that their unrealistic policies were supported, but the group leader’s stance of not being afraid of losing his seat was favorably received.
It would be problematic if populism of this kind were to spread in Japan, too. The rise in public distrust in existing politics, which gave rise to Reiwa Shinsengumi’s popularity, however, should not be overlooked.
In the days ahead, politicians will have to deal with difficult issues such as whether to participate in the Trump administration’s coalition of the willing. For that, it is of utmost importance that people’s trust in politics be restored. There was not much movement of seats in the Upper House election, but the issues put before the ruling and opposition parties were in no way small.