Politics is boring, according to many of my friends and acquaintances. They will acknowledge that it is important and worthy of attention – if only to head off the impending argument implied by my skyrocketing eyebrows – but it’s boring. All that debate over minutiae, all that light and heat generated in passionate promotion or furious condemnation of subtle variations on essentially the same policies; all that time and effort, and so little, they say, truly changes in the end. It’s boring.
Ordinarily, I’m willing to argue against this point of view to its bitter end – and would point to the rise of demagogues like Donald Trump or the economic and social shocks currently wracking the United Kingdom as proof that politics not only matters, it’s also vital, interesting and capable of bringing about great change, not all of it positive. In the case of this weekend’s election in Japan, though, I’m willing to concede the point; this may well be the most genuinely boring election in a generation.
On Sunday, Japanese voters will go to the polls to elect half of the House of Councillors, the upper house of Japan’s bicameral system. 121 seats are up for grabs – 76 of them in First-Past-The-Post races in 45 constituencies around the country, and the remainder in a nationwide proportional election based on the party list system.
The posters are up, the candidates are busy making speeches outside supermarkets and bothering local residents by sending vans around to drone their names for 12 hours a day, and newspapers are printing their (deeply unreliable) polling forecasts – but there’s absolutely no excitement or interest around this election. Even TV news broadcasts are confining the upcoming election to the tail end of their reporting. The reason for that is simple; this House of Councillors election is almost entirely inconsequential for Japanese politics, and as a result it will almost certainly have the lowest turnout in Japanese postwar history.
In part that’s because House of Councillors elections are designed to be inconsequential. The House of Councillors itself is the less powerful of the two chambers (like the UK’s House of Lords, its main power is the ability to delay the adoption of legislation by forcing additional votes in the more powerful House of Representatives), and its elections are structured such that voters only get to vote in (or out) half of the chamber every three years. The councillors elected in 2013 are safe in their seats until 2019; those up for election this time around have been in office since 2010. This is a system explicitly designed to reduce voters’ ability to deliver a stinging mid-term rebuke to a government – the half of the chamber that’s not up for election effectively serves as a counterweight, preventing the balance of power from shifting too far in any given election.
Given the existence of that deliberate, structural effort to render House of Councillors elections somewhat irrelevant, what are the possible outcomes that voters might see from Sunday’s election? What’s the actual choice the Japanese electorate faces?
There are four scenarios that could result. The first is the most unlikely; the opposition parties could win 16 seats from the governing parties (the LDP and Komeito), recreating the “twisted Diet” scenario that hobbled the DPJ’s miserable last few years in government. In reality, they’d need significantly more than 16 seats, as some independents and smaller parties would likely vote with the government rather than with the motley alliance of the Democratic Party, the Communists and some smaller parties.
This scenario will not come to pass. Japanese election polling is not very reliable, but it’s all absolutely clear that the opposition will be losing, not gaining, seats in this election. If there’s been a huge polling miss – which is possible – then the opposition might pick up a small number of seats, but gaining enough to overturn the LDP’s hold on the upper house isn’t on the cards.
That brings us to the second scenario; the status quo. This would see the seat balance remaining much the same – the opposition might gain a few seats (but not as many as 16), or the LDP might gain a few (but not as many as 5, for reasons we’ll see in a moment), but essentially things would remain the same. The LDP would continue to hold the upper house with the support of Komeito. It would be a frustrating result for Prime Minister Abe in some regards, since he’d like to pursue a more aggressive policy approach that requires a larger single-party majority, but it would probably not lead to any major challenge to his leadership.
Scenario three is, in my view, by far the most likely; the LDP wins a number of seats, at least five, which gives them single-party control of the House of Councillors. The five seats which the LDP lacks in the House of Councillors is presently the only thing preventing them from governing the country as a single party (which they have not done since 1993); they have a large single-party majority in the House of Representatives already. In theory, a House of Councillors majority would allow them to dispense of their coalition with Komeito.
In practice, that’s unlikely to happen, because even if LDP politicians forget it sometimes, Komeito actually brings significantly more than votes in the House of Councillors to this relationship. Komeito supporters, largely drawn from the powerful lay Buddhist organisation Soka Gakkai, also generally vote for the LDP candidates in districts where Komeito candidates are not running (in return for which the LDP allows Komeito candidates to run without LDP opposition in a handful of districts). That’s a not insignificant number of votes – breaking up the coalition just because Komeito’s seats in parliament are no longer required would put a lot of LDP marginal seats at risk in future elections, especially if the spurned Komeito were to strike a similar deal with the Democratic Party (or whatever form the main opposition ends up taking after this election).
This outcome would leave Abe in a secure position, but wouldn’t make very much difference to policy-making – the LDP would still need Komeito for future elections, if not for parliamentary votes, and that would put a brake on any desires to promote a more radical policy agenda free of Komeito’s pacifist, centrist influence.
Then there’s the fourth and final possible outcome – the possibility that the LDP, alone or in concert with a number of like-minded parties, could get a two-thirds majority in the House of Councillors. That’s an important number, because in order to kick off the process of amending the Japanese Constitution (which has never been changed since it was adopted directly after the war), a two-thirds vote of both houses of parliament is required. In their attempts to make this election seem interesting, the media has focused on the possibility that a landslide for the LDP and for like-minded parties such Innovations From Osaka could give Abe the capacity to change Article 9 of the Constitution – the article in which Japan gives up the right to the use of military force.
For that to happen, the LDP and the minor parties which support such reform (which does not include Komeito) would need 162 seats in the House of Councillors. Right now, they’ve got perhaps 130 or 131, counting a handful of independents who’d probably swing in that direction. With insignificant parties like The Party For Japanese Kokoro (look, I don’t make up these names) unlikely to make any gains in this election, it would fall to the LDP and Initiatives from Osaka to make up 32 seats or more in this election.
Is that possible? Some of the polling says it’s actually probable, though that polling is somewhat suspect. The variable quality of Japanese election polling aside, this election has some specific aspects that are very hard to model – opposition parties are mostly running unified candidates in the single-member districts, for example, which will impact on voting in ways that are hard to forecast. Tactical voting on the split ballot is also tricky to account for. At best, I’d say that a two thirds “supermajority” of constitutional reform parties is not impossible, but it’s far from probable.
Even if it does happen, the outcome isn’t clear. It would clear one obstacle from the road to constitutional reform, but other barriers remain. For example, while Komeito and the LDP between them enjoy a two-thirds majority in the House of Representatives, Komeito is unlikely to vote for constitutional reform. Cobbling together a coalition to replace those votes would be extremely tricky, and would involve trying to convince some Democratic Party members to vote against their party line and in favour of the LDP’s reform bill. Even if that were done, and the bill passed with two thirds of both houses, all any such bill actually does is authorise a referendum – and convincing the Japanese people of the need to amend a constitution which is strongly supported by the majority of them will be difficult, if not impossible.
Hence, yes, this is a boring election. Even its most dramatic outcomes would only be technical steps paving the way towards possible future changes, and all of its most likely outcomes are no different to the status quo.
It didn’t necessarily have to be this way. The Japanese people remain deeply unimpressed with Abenomics, worried about nuclear power (though the salience of this issue has faded rapidly) and opposed to any move towards more overseas military engagement. In essence, the Japanese people oppose every major plank of the Abe administration’s platform – which should set the stage for an interesting, dramatic election.
The problem, as ever, is that a dramatic election requires a valid opposition – and the main Japanese opposition party, the Democratic Party, has failed miserably to deliver that. Its policy positions are unclear, its differentiation from the LDP’s platform is minimal and its leadership is confused and unimpressive. Its members spend their time scoring technical, political points, and failing to actually reach out to the Japanese electorate and explain why they’re worthy of holding government office, or how they would represent the interests of the people. When the Japanese people – or at least, the minority of them who will bother to vote – go to the polls on Sunday, they will not deliver a rebuke to Abe’s government, because no matter how much they dislike Abe or disapprove of his policies, none of them can see any alternative right now.