Don’t miss Prof. Robert Pekkanen’s very informative on-the-scene report in the comments!
In Sunday’s election for Japan’s upper house, the House of Councilors (HoC), the largest opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), is winning most of the single-seat districts and will be the largest party in that body.
The HoC is elected by a mixed-member majoritarian (MMM) system, as is the more powerful lower house. However, the HoC electoral system differs in several important respects. First, terms are staggered, so only half the seats were up today. Second, the nominal tier consists of some single-seat districts (at any given election) and some multi-seat districts, with the SNTV rule in the latter saving the LDP from a total disaster (for instance, it has won 1 seat and its New Komeito ally another in Tokyo, where the DPJ won the other three). Third, the list is nationwide (whereas for the lower house
each prefecture is a there are eleven regional list constituencies). Fourth, the list is open (rather than closed, as in the lower house).
The DPJ is really cleaning up in the single-seat districts (SSDs) where voters were given a clear choice of LDP vs. DPJ candidate. The Okayama prefecture, which forms a SSD for the upper house, offers a glimpse of clever one-on-one campaign tactics:
Toranosuke Katayama, secretary general of the LDP’s upper house caucus, lost his seat to Democratic Party of Japan rookie Yumiko Himei, a former member of the Okayama Prefectural Assembly backed by the People’s New Party.
Himei won with her slogan “Hime no Tora Taiji,” a play on both candidates’ names that means “The princess [hime] will wipe out the tiger [tora].”
That a leader of the governing LDP’s caucus lost is, of course, a big deal, and it was not the only such case. In another district, Shimane, a candidate of the People’s New Party (PNP) defeated a deputy secretary general of the LDP caucus. There were several districts in which the DPJ jointly endorsed candidates with the PNP, which is one of the parties founded by the “traitors” who were expelled from the LDP in 2005 for opposing then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s postal privatization program. (The PNP also is the party that placed former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori on its national list for this election; apparently he will not be elected.)
According to The Daily Yomiuri (first link above), many of the races won by the DPJ were won with policy-based and anti-government campaigning.
During the campaign [in Tokyo, DPJ candidate and director of an environmental NGO] Masako] Okawara, 54, stressed her achievements in dealing with food safety and environmental problems. She garnered support among housewives and swing voters. [...]
[ Also in Tokyo, DPJ candidate Kan] Suzuki, 43, emphasized his six years of activities as an expert on educational and medical issues throughout the campaign. He called for a change of government, saying, “The current administration cannot carry out real reforms.” [...]
[In Tochigi constituency, DPJ candidate Hiroyuki] Tani apparently gained wider support by capitalizing on public criticism of the ruling coalition over the pension record-keeping blunder and a series of scandals involving Cabinet members.
The success of such campaign tactics is significant for Japan, given that breaking with the old pork-barrel and special-interest-focused campaigns that long sustained the LDP was one of the goals of the lower-house electoral reform back in 1993. The LDP still has not lost an election for the lower house (partly due to its alliance with New Komeito), although the 2005 “snap” election that the LDP won big under Koizumi was fought almost entirely on a single national policy issue: postal privatization. Koizumi craftily used that issue to advertise the repositioning of his party as a policy-reform vehicle and to catch the DPJ off guard.
This election suggests that the voters are no longer buying the reform image of the LDP and have finally decided that the DPJ is the more reformist party. The LDP apparently will be reduced to being the second largest party in the HoC for (if I am not mistaken) the first time in about 50 years. (There was a period in the 1990s when it was not the majority, but remained the largest party.)
Nonetheless, this election is not necessarily fatal for the LDP government headed by Koizumi’s successor, Shinzo Abe. Unlike in Italy, for example, the elected upper house in Japan has no authority to withdraw “confidence” from the cabinet.* Only the lower house can do that, and no election is due for the lower house until
2010 2009. Nonetheless, almost all legislation must clear the upper house, and so Abe’s agenda will be greatly weakened. Will the LDP dump him? Will he decide he has to call an early election and challenge the voters to either oust his party entirely or reinforce his party’s authority vis-a-vis the upper house? I hope some readers more familiar with Japanese politics will weigh in.
* In most bicameral parliamentary systems, the upper house is constitutionally much weaker than the lower house. Other notably powerful parliamentary upper chambers would be those of Australia and Germany, though those also have no formal no-confidence authority. Even so, lack of an upper-house majority was one of the major reasons behind the early lower-house election in Germany in 2005. It is also worth remembering that the defeat Koizumi suffered on his postal privatization in 2005, which led him to call the snap lower-house election, was in the upper house.