Japanese Election and Policy Coalitions

Based on the statements of various non-LDP parties and the election results it looks like we are going to have to forget about political coalitions, of formal or informal kinds, at least for the time being. This is ok – no time to panic just yet.  (For more articulate counsel on the lack of need to panic just yet, see Peter Ennis here.) I am sure many foreign interests will be very interested to see what the implications are for foreign policy. But one take away I think from this election is that while the public holds a complex view on some of the foreign policy challenges Japan faces, they felt that the DPJ concentrated far too much energy on it when in reality it was domestic issues that the populace wanted to see addressed first – in a responsible and considered way of course (cf. consumption tax).

Anyway, back to the point at hand, we should now turn our attention to potential “policy coalitions” that might enable the DPJ to manage the passage of legislation through the Upper House.

As I have said on a number of occasions, a minority government need not be a bad thing – while it lacks formal stability, it can free both the ruling and non-ruling parties to be very strategic and flexible – for the 3rd parties in particular. They can continue to retain their distinctive identity by opposing certain types of legislation while taking credit for others – and thus reinforce the desired image they want to communicate with more precision. Even the ruling party is somewhat freed from having to overly concern itself with the sometimes idiosyncratic whims of its coalition partners. This of course makes for good copy for newspapers, but creates troublesome press for the government, even if in reality if the coalition dynamics are not always that consequential.

The kind of minority government that Japan is going to face for the next wee while is, by minority government standards, not all that bad –  the DPJ will still retain a huge majority in the Lower House. The ruling party knows it does not have to worry about confidence and supply issues, and thus retains control over prominent cabinet roles. Smaller parties on the other hand do not need to face the inevitable question of: “Well, we elected you – now try and govern (or something) and show us what you have got”. Essentially, they can be very particular about how they hone their message over the next 1-3 years.

The current situation may well indeed not only enhance the likelihood of a political realignment in the Japanese political world, but may well make it much more precise if it does happen. After all, political parties will be compelled to explain themselves to the public much more in terms of policy rather than relationships of convenience. Realignment, that is into distinct ideological and policy camps, might become a very transparent process in this kind of scenario.

That said, what are the likely policy coalitions that are likely to have an influence on the passage of the bills through the Diet?1To be sure, below is a very perfunctory and somewhat superficial analysis for now – and it assumes that the parties will act pragmatically – something that may come through post-election but was not necessarily demonstrated in abundance during the election period.

Economic “Left” issues

I am sure the dominant theme that will come through the media, and one Your Party will be eager to emphasise also, is that this election repudiates the DPJ’s “big government” agenda. Leaving aside the veracity of such an insight, it is certainly true that big government is not likely to have  a smooth ride for the remainder of the current Lower House term.

We have the DPJ (106+1 independent), the (more pragmatic?) Communists (6), the Socialist Democratic Party (4), and the PNP with 3 in this category. This totals 120. This is only two votes off the majority number of 122 needed to pass legislation. However, while only two votes, these will be a very hard two votes to come by – I can hardly see who they could persuade to support or jump ship in aid of such an agenda.

This has dire consequences for issues such as the postal reform rollback. The Komeitō could come to the party if the focus was not necessarily on rolling back privatization but say for providing subsidies for rural communities to retain postal services by way of direct transfers to municipalities. Anything else, by my reading of Komeitō’s previous stances on this issue, would greatly disinterest them (and I would say so it should), and would also probably lead to other potential policy partners on other issues becoming inconsolably (as opposed to opportunistically) outraged.

Cultural “Left” issues

The situation here is a little bit more promising for such an agenda. First we can take the PNP out of the equation here – they tend to be quite conservative on cultural issues while being quite partial to big government initiatives. If we include together the DPJ, the SDP, and Komeitō (on some issues), we come to approximately 130 votes. Add in the Communists, who some have read as becoming more pragmatic, this goes up to 136. This might have implications for laws such as local suffrage for foreigners, proposed human rights legislation, and various other policies.

Civil Service Reform/Fiscal Spending

The obvious coalition here, despite many protestations to the contrary, is between the DPJ and Your Party. We could also throw in the likes of Shintō Kaikaku (Masuzoe Yoichi’s party), and perhaps even the two votes from Sunrise Japan (Yosano’s party).  Here we come to approximately 122 votes. Even if we take out Sunrise, there is also the likelihood of the DPJ, or more likely, Your Party, being able to pinch a few reformist LDP members. Especially if they become frustrated with the lack of reform in the LDP (and entrenchment on the periphery of Japanese politics). These issues well get some traction.

As an aside, while many parts of the political spectrum are keen to label the DPJ as false reformers, in reality the types of reforms the DPJ and “anti-DPJ” 3rd parties are keen to see are two sides of the same coin. Your Party is rallying against perceived entrenched interests in the bureaucracy, as well as in terms of special interest groups dominance (labour unions, teacher’s unions). The DPJ on the other hand wants to undermine entrenched interests in the political system, including  some parts of the bureaucracy, but also including the media, and other cultural institutions. I guess the DPJ is fundamentally concerned that without what it sees to be a level playing field, the Japanese public may well rush back to the LDP at the next opportunity. Obviously there are many areas where the strategies and interests of the two parties will overlap. This also leads to the next potential policy coalition.

Electoral Reform A

A switch from a more equitable relationship between urban and rural electoral districts, will be in the interests of parties such as the DPJ (107), Your Party (11), Shintō Kaikaku (2), the SDP(4), the Communists (6), and probably Komeitō (19). This gives a healthy number of approximately 149 to play with. This change is more or less “mandated” by various supreme court rulings as constitutionally justified, so will be interesting to see if anyone takes up the opportunity.

Electoral Reform B

This is electoral reform to reduce the number of MPs, especially in the Upper House (Yes, a little bit unusual given it is the Upper House that will exercise restraint over the current government!). Related to this, the DPJ wants to reduce the number of PR seats available as a proportion of the overall total of seats – in both houses I suspect.  I think that this reform, even despite the constitutional considerations that should be borne in mind, is much less likely to proceed.

Certainly, the DPJ would be suspicious of the former (simple reduction in seats) if it didn’t include any PR seat reductions. And almost everyone else but the LDP and the DPJ would be suspicious of any reduction in PR seats. Possibly the only compromise that may be acceptable would be a combination of making the Upper House districts based on population proportions, while also at the same time being “multi-member” – as suggested by Takenaka Harukata here on Japan Echo’s website. This would make the electoral math not completely antagonistic to smaller parties, and would also give a more urban flavour to the electoral map. You could also dramatically reduce the numbers – perhaps to something like 100.  It is worth bearing in mind that Your Party in particular did quite well and snuck in with 3 seats in the multi-member electoral districts of Tokyo, Chiba and Kanagawa – it was not purely a PR vote victory for Your Party. In fact, such a change might well only need the support of the DPJ, Your Party, Masuzoe and friend and perhaps a few LDP recruits who have made it on their own name and fame.

Short of this kind of change, perhaps a reduction of the PR seats available would only be possible if the DPJ and LDP colluded in the run up to the elections in 2013 and rammed it through over the protests of the smaller parties. I suspect they probably will not do that.

Tax reform A: consumption tax increase

The consumption tax rise is dead to at least 2013 it seems. Only the DPJ and perhaps the Sunrise party (2) are likely to want to tackle this during the current Lower House term – although much less likely now than before. The general lesson seems to be “try a little bit harder with reforming fiscal spending first please, then come back to us”.

Tax reform B: Corporate tax decrease

The prospects for this are much better as you could add Your Party and any LDP defectors into the midst. However, as the DPJ, and I assume Yosano’s Sunrise, might be of the view that corporate tax reductions and an increase in the consumption tax are part of the same package, it might well give them much pause. Certainly very very consequential fiscal spending savings will need to be found, if they exist, to offset such a move in the short-term.

Cultural “Right” issues

The prospects for any such policies or change in government orientation here are slim. Even while Your Party have a slight bent to the “right”, as do Shintō Kaikaku, the PNP and certainly Sunrise (and the LDP), together these votes only come to about 106 votes in my estimation, far short of the 122 needed. Likewise for a rapid turn to the “right” in foreign policy, although I am not necessarily convinced that the whole of the LDP is neo-conservative in disposition (cf. the realism of the likes of Ishiba Shigeru).

Foreign Policy – of any kind

It is hard to discern exactly what might happen here. As suggested above, that might well be the way the public wants it for now – ie the status quo. Certainly, it is less than clear – with the DPJ being what it is, and with Komeitō and Your Party not having  a very strong foreign policy identity – what kind of foreign policy will be pursued, other than perhaps that of familiar, careful MOFA diplomatic management.

Of course, that will not necessarily mean nothing much will happen and that there are no foreign policy consequences. The US is likely to want to push forward with Futenma and any other force transition/realignment plans. Any hesitation could incur further US wrath. This may not necessarily work well for the US or Japan – and is likely to really focus the Japanese population on the “US” problem, given that everyone’s favourite punching bag Hatoyama Yukio has already been done away with.

Furthermore, Armchair Asia points out an interesting dynamic in regards to US politics and Japanese history that might come into play as Japan courts the US for high-speed rail contracts. If Japan was perceived to be knocked back because of legislation such as this, I can imagine that it would certainly have implications for the alliance in general. And even if as is hoped over at Armchair Asia, the Japanese see both “moral”, and “self-interested” sense in addressing issues such as these (important in their own right to be sure), this will not strip the issue of its political meaning back “home”, and for long-term strategic thinking on the wisdom of being dependent on the US for security.2 It might not even be this issue that brings things to a head – but it is an example of something that might become all the more difficult, given yesterday’s election results, for the government to manage in any sort of proactive way.

1 It is worthwhile saying here that with the government now realising the full seriousness of its predicament, this will also have a strong impact upon legislation going through the Lower House as they will not want to be knocked back too much. I anticipate the government will work away very quietly on what it can in the short-term and only in the lead up to the election put forward more controversial bills to demonstrate where they stand, and by contrast, show where the other parties do not.

2 Ultimately, a morally logical and consistent Japanese government and populace may not necessarily be what the US would want in the long run, given the Japanese perception of its (the US’) own tendency to be selective in its application from time to time. As someone from another somewhat isolated island country, with a strange chip on its shoulder in regards to other global powers, they wouldn’t be the only one!

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3 thoughts on “Japanese Election and Policy Coalitions

  1. Pingback: JapanSoc

  2. “The ruling party knows it does not have to worry about confidence and supply issues”

    That’s “New Zealandizing” the Japanese political process, although the term has been used in Scotland and the UK as well. Although the government does not need the UH to pass the budget, the UH can still hold passage of the budget up for a month, thereby potentially creating an “issue.”

    • Bryce, this is understood. While technically the terms might not be used in Japanese – no surprise given they are english terms- they do speak colloquially to what I am referring to. Confidence – votes of confidence in the PM do take place in the lower house and it is only the lower house where a government can fall on a legislative vote. The upper house can only censure the PM/ruling party. Supply – referring to the supply of money to be used by the executive arm of the government for the day to day running of the country – ok point taken on the upper house being able to hold up the budget, but a one month delay is not a disaster compared to the general sense of doom surrounding the ねじれ国会. My point was that it is not impossible for the government to govern and hold on for long enough to force the minor parties to come to the legislative table if they don’t want to look obstructive. The situation could be worse – if both houses looked like the upper house in terms of party composition – which is likely what would happen if an election took place now as demanded by some. So it is very significant that the DPJ retains such a large majority in the lower house. The main challenge will be party unity for the time being.

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