One Step Closer: Japan’s Election & Political Stability – Part 1

By Yuko Nakano

Japan's 2012 general election has radically reshaped the seats of the Lower House of the Diet, shown here, in favor of the Liberal Democratic Party. However, the LDP's Shinzo Abe must maneuver carefully if political stability is to return to Japan. Source: Kimtaro's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

On December 16, the Japanese public cast ballots in a general election for the House of Representatives or Lower House of parliament and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) regained control of that chamber by winning 294 of 480 seats.  The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) was ousted from power by losing three-quarters of the seats it previously held and was downsized to 57.  The new Restoration Party of Japan (RPJ), led by former governor of Tokyo Shintaro Ishihara and mayor of Osaka Toru Hashimoto, gained 54 seats.

LDP President Shinzo Abe, who will be designated as prime minister by the parliament on December 26, has proposed a large supplemental budget to support growth and called for monetary easing to combat deflation, which has plagued Japan since the 1990’s.

On defense and foreign policy, the LDP platform emphasizes the importance of the U.S.-Japan alliance and states that Japan should exercise the right of collective self-defense to advance security cooperation with the United States.  Abe also suggested changing the name of the Self Defense Forces to kokubou gun (national defense force) by amending the Constitution.

While the LDP had a landslide win in this election, Abe’s ability to implement his policy agenda could depend on the outcome of yet another election scheduled for July 2013, when half of the seats in the House of Councillors (Upper House) will be contested.  As former U.S. ambassador to Japan, J. Thomas Schieffer puts it, “Unless Mr. Abe figures out a way to turn his Lower House mandate into an Upper House realignment, this election could wind up being a ‘semi-final’ match to the ‘final’ one that will be held in July for the Upper House.”

Abe already announced that the LDP would form a coalition government with its ally, the New Komei Party (Komeito), and might forge a “partial coalition” on a case-by-case basis with other parties.  The question is how the LDP and Komeito will create more political stability while eyeing the next election for the Upper House.

“Stable” Government

Together the LDP and Komeito control the lower chamber with a two-thirds majority, but discussions about forming a “partial coalition” still continue.  Why?  In theory, for a ruling party to effectively pass legislation, it needs to (1) secure an “absolute majority” in the Lower House (269 seats) and a simple majority in the Upper House (122 seats); or (2) gain a two-thirds majority in the Lower House (320 seats).  However, having a two-thirds majority in the Lower House does not guarantee a stable government.

To see why, let’s review the rules and numbers of the Japanese parliamentary system. One way to measure the strength and stability of the government is based on proceedings in the standing committees in the parliament.

  • There are 17 standing committees in the Lower House, with 620 slots (one can serve on multiple committees).  Like in the United States, the ratio of each committee is proportionate to the percentage of the seats controlled by each party.
  • For a ruling party to have a majority in each standing committee, it needs more than 325 of the 620 membership slots.  This distribution is called a “stable majority.”  The “stable majority” enables the ruling party, with the help of the chairman’s vote, to “steamroll” legislation through committee in case of a tie vote.  In order to get the 325 membership slots, a party needs 252 seats in the Lower House.
  • An “absolute majority” refers to the most stable arrangement for the ruling party in terms of committee procedure.  By having an absolute majority in each committee, including the Steering Committee which is vital for smooth legislative proceedings, the ruling party does not have to resort to the chairman’s tie-breaking vote in order to bring legislation to the plenary session of the Diet.  That magic number is 269.  In this election, this was the number the LDP was aiming at, and exceeded with a big margin.

Another way to gauge the strength of the government is based on numbers necessary to pass legislation in the Diet.

  • When legislation is voted on and passed in the Lower House, it is then taken up by the Upper House, which consists of 242 members.  At present, the LDP have 83 seats (102 with Komeito) while the DPJ holds 88 seats.  Neither the DPJ nor the LDP has a simple majority of 122 in the Upper House.
  • If a decision of the lower and upper houses differ on a budget, a treaty, or a designation of prime minister, the Lower House decision will override that of the Upper House.
  • On regular legislation, if a bill is passed in the Lower House but voted down in the Upper House, the Lower House can hold a second roll-call vote and override the decision of the Upper House with a two-thirds majority (normally 320).
  • To amend the Constitution or change the rules regarding the Constitutional amendments, a two-thirds majority in the both chambers is required (and a majority of the public must express support via a referendum).

The LDP, with its coalition partner Komeito, controls 325 seats in the Lower House which is more than the two-thirds majority that is needed to overrule the Upper House.  However, the ruling parties cannot fall back on this “super majority” every time they try to pass important legislation. Such a legislative practice can be seen as a sign of “arrogance” by the public and the LDP and Komeito do not want to create a public backlash against them, especially before the Upper House election next year.  It is precisely for this reason that the LDP and the Komeito may seek some form of partnership with others in the parliament.

Ms. Yuko Nakano is a Research Associate with the CSIS Japan Chair. To learn more read part 2 of Yuko’s analysis on prospects for political stability in Japan and the possible coalition alignments. You can also watch the CSIS Japan Chair’s event live on the elections and the  implications for the U.S.-Japan alliance later this afternoon, 3:00 p.m. EST, December 18. UPDATE: This event has concluded. Thanks for watching.

4 comments for “One Step Closer: Japan’s Election & Political Stability – Part 1

  1. Anonymous
    December 18, 2012 at 18:30

    This is a very well-thought-out peice with lots of useful facts and figures. Thank you. Looking forward to Part 2 of the analysis.

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