June 15, 2007; Volume 03, Number 22

of the

Japan Considered Podcast

[Listen to the audio file by clicking here]

Clink Links Below for Today's Topics

Introduction
Mysteries of the Upper House Electoral System
Timing of the Election
How Upper House Elections are Conducted
Winning and Losing
What if the Ruling Coalition Should Lose?
Is Lower House Dissolution Likely Should the Ruling Coalition Lose?
Significance of the Lower House Two-Thirds Majority
Other Possibilities
Concluding Comments

Good Morning from Beautiful Modoc Campground. On the South Carolina shore of Strom Thurmond Lake. A lake we share with our Southern neighbor, Georgia. Today is Friday, June 15th, 2007. And you are listening to Volume 03, Number 22, of the Japan Considered Podcast.

Introduction

Modoc is one of the many campgrounds around the country created and maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This one must be seen and experienced to be believed. The individual sites are situated on two peninsulas that extend a ways out into Lake Thurmond. This gives nearly every campsite a great view of the lake. Facilities are well maintained. Including even hot showers. What more could a person ask!

Well, I guess, since we’re asking, a WiFi cloud over the whole campsite would be nice. But, really! How many campers produce podcasts while enjoying nature this way! Nah. I won’t even mention it. I’ll try to put a couple of pictures in the transcript. The Japan Considered Podcast Mobile Studio in the midst of some of the best nature South Carolina has to offer. If this keeps up, I’ll have to add a Mobile Studio page to the Japan Considered website!

This week again we have a full plate. To coin a phrase. Last week we focused on international developments. Developments, I believe, that demonstrate significant change in Japan’s behavior as an international actor. Anti-Abe Cabinet observers, of course, hope to minimize the significance of these events. Since they have the potential for positive evaluation of the Cabinet by Japan’s public. And might even help slow the decline in its public approval ratings. Partisan politics aside, though, these international events do have longer-term significance for our understanding of Japan. We shouldn’t sacrifice longer-term understanding of how Japan actually works in pursuit of short-term political gains.

This week our focus will be domestic. Domestic politics from beginning to end. Yes, I can anticipate the flurry of e-mail messages now. “How could you ignore XYZ? With XYZ here representing one or another significant international development. Well, that’s just the way it goes. As I mention each week, this is not intended to be a comprehensive news show. Even a comprehensive news and analysis show. There are plenty of places to go for that. “News on Japan” is one of the most comprehensive I’ve found. In terms of links to news articles from a wide variety of English language sources. But even there, I’m sometimes surprised by the items that get linked, and those that don’t get linked. Go over and have a look. An excellent site. Click on the link and go have a look.  

Here on the Japan Considered Podcast our objective is quite different. We’re not “news-focused,” to put it one way. We’re analysis and interpretation-focused. Our objective is to provide interpretation and analysis of Japan’s domestic politics and conduct of international relations that will help our listeners better understand how Japan’s politics works. Our use of items in the news is incidental to that larger objective.

Mysteries of the Upper House Electoral System

So, let’s begin today with the long-delayed mysteries of the Upper House electoral system. I’ve received quite a few e-mails asking for clarification. Now, the usual caveat. I’m no specialist on Japan’s electoral system. There are lots of folks who write in English about the electoral system. Who spend most of their careers on that topic! I’m not among ‘em. Never did very well at algebra, let alone calculus! So, “electoral studies” was out of the question. Don’t think we had much of that at Columbia, anyway, while I was there.

So what follows isn’t a comprehensive, or sophisticated explanation of the Upper House electoral system. Rather, I’ll try to provide just enough detail to allow all of us non-experts to make sense of the election results as they’re published in late July. And to understand the game, so to speak, during the run-up to this election. Why the election competitors, individuals and organizations, are doing what they’re doing. And the significance of their efforts. And we’re surely seeing plenty of this. It seems as though every item of news from Japan arrives with election-effect spin. Of course, it’s not every item. It just seems that way.

Timing of the Election

But first, a comment about the timing of this next election. It’s now EXPECTED to be held on July 22nd. With the official campaign period set to begin on July 5th. These naturally are important dates. Both for Upper House incumbents facing elections. And for their challengers. But the whole thing could be delayed if the ruling coalition decides to extend the current Diet session for six days or more. In order to give more time to pass the bills they’re hoping to pass. But as of today, the current Diet session is expected to end on June 23rd. That’s Saturday of next week.

Rumors are flying about the Abe Kantei’s intentions. Those rumors undoubtedly include a good measure of “threat.” Rumors perhaps encouraged by the Kantei to goad Upper House Members into accelerating their deliberations. Especially deliberation of legislation dear to the heart of the Abe Kantei. And to most members of the LDP. We’ll know for sure some time next week whether the session extension threat will be carried out. And there’s bound to be more to-ing and fro-ing on extension between now and then.

How Upper House Elections are Conducted

Japan’s Constitution requires that an Upper House election be held every three years. With half of the total membership selected during each election. The Constitution leaves both the number of Diet members and the specific method of their selection to “be fixed by law,” as they put it. Both have been changed a number of times since promulgation of the Constitution in 1947.

Today the Upper House has 242 seats. 96 of those seats are determined through a proportional representation election nationwide. More on that in a moment. The remaining 146 seats are selected by single votes cast in each of Japan’s 47 prefectures. Each prefecture is allocated from 2 to 8 seats. Theoretically based on the prefecture’s population. Though considerable disparity exists.

So, this year, 73 Upper House members will be selected from prefectural districts. And 48 members will be selected through proportional representation nationwide. For a total of 121 members. That’s half of the total Upper House membership.

On July 22nd, or whenever the Upper House election ultimately is held, each voter will receive two ballots. One for the candidate of his or her choice in the prefectural district. And a second ballot for the nationwide proportional representation competition.

This second PR ballot becomes even more complicated. The voters can choose either a particular party. Or, they can choose an individual candidate endorsed by one of the Parties. This last feature, called an “open list” system, was added during the 2000 revision of the Public Offices Election Law. Right before the 2001 Upper House Election. It encourages, among other things, Japan’s parties to endorse celebrities with high name recognition to run as candidates for the 48 PR seats. Hmmm. And further complicates counting of votes. But the system has worked since first tried in 2001.

As I said a moment ago, the 126 seats allocated to the prefectures are distributed roughly according to population. Tottori Prefecture’s 611 thousand residents have 2 Upper House seats. And Tokyo’s 12.4 million residents are represented by 8 Members in the Upper House. The inequality is obvious. The system’s far from perfect. Each election inspires lawsuits charging unequal representation. But it’s what we have to work with here. So we should at least understand how it’s supposed to work.

Winning and Losing

How, with such a complex electoral system, do we determine winners and losers? Well, this time around it’s easier than in the past. The Ruling Coalition – that’s the LDP and New Komeito – hope to maintain their absolute majority in the Upper House. That is, 122 seats, plus one. At the moment the LDP has 109 total seats and New Komeito 24. For a total of 133 seats. They can afford to lose only 10 seats, or just over, and maintain that majority.

The LDP and New Komeito between ‘em have 58 seats won during the last Upper House election, three years ago. They won’t be contested, of course. So, to reach the magic 122 seat total, the two parties have to win 64 seats this time around. Not easy. And it may well not happen. Some of the more reliable prognosticators predict New Komeito will be able to bring in 12, or maybe 13 seats. That leaves 51 or 52 for the LDP to win. Which will be hard. Optimistic LDP leaders state confidently that will happen. Whether they really believe it or not is another question.

What if the Ruling Coalition Should Lose?

So, there’s a real possibility that we may see the Ruling Coalition lose its majority in the Upper House. So we’d better give some thought to what that would mean. Keep in mind, now, this isn’t a prediction. I’m not in that business. Just a “what-if” exercise to help us think through the alternatives, and their significance.

Well, a loss certainly wouldn’t be good news for the Abe Administration. Abe’s critics within the LDP would be first to argue that Abe himself should “take responsibility” for the loss. By which they’d mean he should resign the premiership. Not too surprising. Especially if the critics believe they have a chance to succeed Abe as prime minister. But should Abe agree to “accept responsibility” and resign the Party presidency and premiership, it’s not at all clear who would succeed him. Or even how that successor would be chosen.

Most likely, the successor would be chosen through caucus of the Party Diet membership. With representatives of local and prefectural Party chapters playing a lesser, even symbolic, role. The internal succession battle would be intense. Bruising! With divisions between older traditional Factionist/Zoku members and younger Populist members. In addition to tensions between more progressive and more conservative members. With the traditional factions trying to demonstrate that they’re still influential! LDP members as diverse as Taro Aso, Yasuo Fukuda, Taku Yamasaki, Yasuhisa Shiozaki, and even Yuriko Koike, all sincerely believing themselves to be Shinzo Abe’s rightful successor. And that the LDP wouldn’t be in such a pickle had they been selected last year as LDP president instead of Abe.

It certainly would be interesting to watch. Again, if it happens.

Opposition Party observers would be thrilled with a Ruling Coalition Upper House election loss, of course. Ichiro Ozawa would justifiably argue that his organized labor electoral cooperation strategy had worked. That he was right to travel around the country with the Rengo leadership rather than attend Party executive committee meetings and Diet debate. This outcome would have profound implications for the DPJ’s relationship with organized labor. And undoubtedly the internal clout of former Socialist DPJ members. A result that might well heighten tensions between the Right and Left wings of the Party. With possible implications for post-election DPJ party solidarity. More about that too in a moment.

The DPJ and other Opposition parties, of course, would demand more than the resignation of Shinzo Abe as the price of the LDP’s loss. In fact, though they wouldn’t say so in public, they might well prefer that Abe continue as prime minister. Rather than having him replaced with a potentially more attractive LDP leader. But officially, the Opposition would demand not only a new LDP president and prime minister, but dissolution of the Lower House and a General Election.

Is Lower House Dissolution Likely Should the Ruling Coalition Lose?

This is a theme we’re likely to hear a lot of between now and announcement of the Upper House election results. The Opposition’s demand for dissolution of the Lower House and a general election should the Ruling Coalition lose its majority in the Upper House. Is this likely? Even if the Ruling Coalition faces as big a loss in the Upper House election as some prognosticators predict.

Well, I doubt it. The LDP won a huge victory during the last general election. Held September 11, 2005. Less than two years ago. Far greater than all but the most optimistic predictions at the time. Which tells us something about election predictions …. The LDP won 296 seats in that election. As of May 28th of this year, that number had increased to 305. That alone amounts to nearly a two-thirds majority of the Lower House’s 480 seats. And with the New Komeito’s 31 representatives added to the Coalition, it’s well over two-thirds. This two-thirds is important for reasons I’ll discuss in a moment. The DPJ paid the price of the LDP’s victory in that election. Dropping from 175 seats before the election to 113. A crushing defeat as unexpected as the LDP’s victory margin.

So, yes. Undoubtedly the DPJ would be delighted to have another go at the LDP. Especially the LDP under Shinzo Abe rather than under the far more popular Junichiro Koizumi they faced in September of 2005.

But why would the LDP agree to dissolve the Lower House and hold a general election? With no constitutional requirement that they do so. When they now enjoy the largest Lower House majority they’ve ever had! That just doesn’t make sense to me. Well, DPJ dissolution advocates might argue, The People expect it. To “take responsibility,” doncha know. Indeed. We wouldn’t want to disappoint The People …. Well … unless our political careers depended on it …. For a time ….

Significance of the Lower House Two-Thirds Majority

This, I think, is where the Ruling Coalition’s two-thirds Lower House majority becomes more significant. A few observers of Japan’s politics, even some writing in Japanese, have predicted political stalemate should the Ruling Coalition lose its majority in the Upper House. The Government would no longer be able to pass any legislation, they predict. But though we must avoid minimizing the significance of a Ruling Coalition Upper House loss, we must not exaggerate it either. Or misrepresent it.

Article 59 of Japan’s Constitution states that bills rejected by the Upper House become law if passed by a two-thirds majority of those present in the Lower House. Should the Upper House refuse to either pass or reject a bill passed by the Lower House, the Lower House can consider the bill rejected by the Upper House after passage of 60 days.

There are exceptions. Important exceptions. Passage of the national budget for one. Which gives the Lower House even greater influence. The same for ratification of treaties. Not to mention election of prime ministers.

So, while a loss of majority in the Upper House would inconvenience the Ruling Coalition, it would hardly paralyze its ability to pass legislation. The Lower House two-thirds majority would guarantee that. Given that, I find it difficult to imagine the Ruling Coalition agreeing to hold a general election to “take responsibility” for an Upper House loss.

The same thing can be said about the likelihood of the Ruling Coalition deciding to hold what’s called a “double election” at the time of the Upper House election. That is, a Lower House General Election together with the Upper House election. There’s been even more speculation in the Japanese political press about that during the past couple of months. But it doesn’t make sense to me. Not with that whopping Lower House majority. Why jeopardize it? Especially given the decline in public approval of the Abe Cabinet.

Other Possibilities

Again, I’m not predicting a Ruling Coalition Upper House election loss at the end of July. Just trying to anticipate what might happen – and not happen – should such a loss occur. One thing is clear. Such a loss is unlikely to lead to the sort of governmental paralysis predicted by some of Japan’s political media. Not with the Ruling Coalition still enjoying well over a two-thirds majority in the Lower House.

It’s also possible that a Ruling Coalition loss might intensify pressure for a more general realignment of party memberships. Especially in the Upper House. Such a realignment might include defection of LDP members to Ichiro Ozawa’s DPJ. Especially some of the more strident anti-Abe LDP members. Should Abe refuse to resign to “take responsibility” for the Upper House election loss. But even more likely is the possibility of DPJ members defecting to the LDP. Especially members uncomfortable with Ozawa’s reliance on organized labor in the election. And the subsequent effect of that on the Party’s policies and public image.

As noted a moment ago. Likely? Perhaps no more likely than it has been since the fall 2005 general election. Maybe less likely now, given the declining public approval of the LDP Abe Cabinet. But certainly possible.

Another possibility is the decision of one or more of the splinter parties to merge with the LDP. Given the personalities involved, this might be even more difficult. But again, not impossible. Should either of these things happen it might well be enough to bring the LDP/New Komeito coalition back into majority in the Upper House.

Concluding Comments

So, there you have it. The mysteries of the Upper House election system revealed. As well as consideration of their significance for Japan’s conduct of domestic politics. I’m sure there will be more on this topic to discuss next week. As well as consideration of the surprising decline in public approval of the Abe Cabinet. We’re out of time now, though. Well, just another minute or so, to close out with our usual inspiring clip of bluegrass. Last week’s glimpse of the Oak Ridge Boys shocked some of our Bluegrass Purist listeners. So, I’ll return this week to more traditional fare. Here’s a tantalizing clip from Jonathan Edwards and the Seldom Scene. From their 1985 Sugar Hill album, “Blue Ridge.” This is “Don’t this Road Look Rough and Rocky. As usual, I’ll put a link in the transcript so you can click on over and get your own copy if you don’t already have one. Enjoy.

[bluegrass]

Goodbye all. Until next week.