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Saturday, July 10, 2010

Japan's 2010 House of Councillors election: another "twisted Diet" coming up?

by Manuel Alvarez-Rivera, Puerto Rico

Without doubt, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) has had a decidedly rough ride in power in the ten months since its historic House of Representatives election victory, which brought to an end more than half-a-century of nearly uninterrupted Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) rule. Last month the Japanese public was treated to the all-too-familiar spectacle of a prime minister stepping down following a decidedly short tenure: after less than nine months as Japan's head of government, Yukio Hatoyama left office over his inability to fulfill campaign promises, and was subsequently replaced by Naoto Kan; Kan, who also succeeded Hatoyama as DPJ leader, is Japan's fifth prime minister in less than four years.

Meanwhile, more grief may be in store for DPJ. Prime Minister Kan's initially strong popularity ratings have been steadily slipping over the course of the past few weeks, and another very familiar political spectacle may be about to take place in Japan, when voters go to the polls on Sunday, July 11 to renew half the membership of the upper house of Japan's bicameral National Diet, the House of Councillors: some opinion polls suggest DPJ and its remaining ally, the small People's New Party (PNP) could lose their joint upper house majority.

The loss of the upper house (whose electoral system is described in Japan's 2007 House of Councillors election and Parliamentary Elections in Japan) would be a major setback to Prime Minister Kan's government: under Japan's 1947 "MacArthur" constitution, bills rejected by the House of Councillors can't become law unless the House of Representatives - the Diet's lower chamber - overrides the Councillors' veto by a majority of at least two-thirds. Consequently, an opposition-controlled upper house can derail the government's legislative agenda, as was the case between 2007 and 2009, when DPJ and its allies controlled the House of Councillors, while LDP and its coalition partners held a large majority in the House of Representatives; not surprisingly, this state of affairs - known in Japan as a "twisted Diet" - led to repeated clashes between the two legislative bodies.

However, the lower chamber retains the final word on a number of important matters, most notably among them the designation of a prime minister. In addition, it's quite possible that Prime Minister Kan and DPJ could find new coalition allies after the election to secure an upper house majority, such as the small Your Party, which holds a single upper house seat but appears set to make sizable gains in the upcoming vote. Nonetheless, Kan and the Democrats have not helped themselves with their insistence on increasing the five percent consumption tax, which has proven unpopular with potential coalition partners, not to mention voters.

Although the loss of the House of Councillors' majority will not in and of itself bring down Naoto Kan's cabinet, a particularly bad result for DPJ could trigger Kan's eventual resignation, just as the LDP's defeat in the previous upper house election led to the demise of Shinto Abe's government three years ago.


As anticipated by a number of opinion polls, the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) suffered a major setback in Sunday's House of Councillors election. With all votes tallied, DPJ and its ally, the People's New Party lost their absolute majority in the upper house of Japan's National Diet, even though DPJ will remain the largest single party in the House of Councillors.

According to figures published by Japan's Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, the results of the prefectural district vote were as follows:

Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) - 19,496,083 votes (33.4%), 39 seats
Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) - 22,756,000 votes (39.0%), 28 seats
Your Party (YP) - 5,977,391 votes (10.2%), 3 seats
New Komeito (NK) - 2,265,818 votes (3.9%), 3 seats
Japanese Communist Party (JCP) - 4,256,400 votes (7.3%), no seats
New Renaissance Party (NRP) - 625,431 votes (1.1%), no seats
Social Democratic Party (SDP) - 602,684 votes (1.0%), no seats
Sunrise Party of Japan (SPJ) - 328,475 votes (0.6%), no seats
People's New Party (PNP) - 167,555 votes (0.3%), no seats
Independents - 1,314,313 votes (2.3%), no seats
Others - 610,657 votes (1.0%), no seats

Meanwhile, the results of the party list vote were the following:

Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) - 18,450,139 votes (31.6%), 16 seats
Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) - 14,071,671 votes (24.1%), 12 seats
Your Party (YP) - 7,943,649 votes (13.6%), 7 seats
New Komeito (NK) - 7,639,433 votes (13.1%), 6 seats
Japanese Communist Party (JCP) - 3,563,557 votes (6.1%), 3 seats
Social Democratic Party (SDP) - 2,242,735 votes (3.8%), 2 seats
Sunrise Party of Japan (SPJ) - 1,232,207 votes (2.1%), 1 seat
New Renaissance Party (NRP) - 1,172,395 votes (2.0%), 1 seat
People's New Party (PNP) - 1,000,036 votes (1.7%), no seats
Others - 1,137,609 votes (1.9%), no seats

Therefore, LDP won 51 seats; DPJ, 44; YP, 10; NK, 9; JCP, 3; SDP, 2; SPJ, 1; NRP, 1 and PNP, none. Consequently, the government has been reduced to 110 seats in the House of Councillors following the 2010 election, while the opposition parties will hold 132 seats.

Although DPJ received the largest number of both prefectural district and party list votes, LDP won the largest number of seats by capturing 21 of 29 single-member districts; DPJ, which only carried eight single-member seats, won more seats than LDP in both the multi-member districts and the party list vote, but this was not sufficient to overcome LDP's large single-seat lead. That said, the election outcome wasn't exactly a ringing endorsement for the Liberal Democrats, as Japan's erstwhile dominant party had its lowest party list share of the vote ever. On the other hand, LDP breakaway Your Party (YP), which favors small government, soared to third place in the election, displacing traditional LDP ally New Komeito (NK; an offshoot of the lay Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai); just as significantly - and contrary to earlier speculation - YP has now ruled out a coalition with DPJ.

It may be debatable whether the result polled by DPJ in the recently held House of Councillors election was particularly bad or not, but it is clear that in terms of seats won it was well below the party's already limited expectations. Historical precedent strongly suggests the upper house election setback will in all likelihood lead to the fall of Prime Minister Kan's government; however, only time will tell if this will turn out to be the case.