Written by Ellis S. Krauss.

Ever since the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was formed in 1955, Japan’s party politics and elections have fallen into a pattern: continuous LDP electoral victories and governance, punctuated by occasional challenges and surprising defeats, only to return to power again for a long period.

Despite polls showing he enjoyed no majority public support for his policies on almost any important issue, Prime Minister Abe Shinzō managed to win two large majorities in elections, in 2012 and 2014. He did so by skilful electioneering and riding a wave of deep and continuing distrust for the main opposition party – the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) – that had incompetently governed from 2009-2012, as well as the abstention of some of Japan’s disillusioned opposing voters.

The 2017 election’s results were less significant for the outcome—which by the end of the campaign was predicted and predictable—than for the reformation of the party system it brought about. The splitting of the main opposition party, the DPJ, resulted in a shuffling of the parties around the traditional post-war major cleavage in Japanese politics:  defence and the US-Japan alliance.

The October 22 Snap Election

With over a two-thirds LDP majority in the Lower House with his coalition party, the Clean Government Party (CGP), by 2017 Abe seemed well on his way to achieving his two main goals. One was revising Japan’s “pacifist” Article 9 of the Constitution. The second was becoming the longest-serving prime minister in the post-war period, an achievable goal. However, two government scandals involving right-wing friends who operated private schools, suddenly clouded the picture.

Against this background, Abe decided to gamble and call an early snap election, looking for an assured mandate to claim even greater legitimacy for his policies, particularly for a scheduled hike in an unpopular consumption tax and his tough stand against a very threatening North Korea. With the opposition still in disarray and the economy finally showing signs of growth after two decades of stagnation, it didn’t look much of a gamble: polls showed the still unpopular main opposition party DPJ with less than 10 percent support.

The Koike Surprise and DPJ Split

But then a surprise occurred in the form of a former LDP leading politician, Koike Yuriko. A divorced woman, she spent her college years in Cairo, spoke fluent Arabic, and became a popular award-winning media journalist and news anchor before being elected to the Diet in 1992. She served as a cabinet minister twice, including  (briefly) as Minister of Defence.  In 2008, she became the first female LDP candidate for prime minister, but came in third. In 2017, she wanted to become the LDP’s candidate for Governor of Tokyo. She did not secure the nomination so she left the LDP and ran as the candidate for the new local party she formed. The local LDP chapter opposed her, but the LDP’s national coalition partner, the CGP, supported her, and she and her party won handily, including a majority in the local assembly. She immediately became extremely popular as an independent force in Japanese politics.

Now she set out to challenge the party again, this time nationally. She formed a new party, The Party of Hope (HP; Kibou no Tou) to run in the October 2017 snap election. Former DPJ representatives then disbanded their own Lower House party and many of them looked to join Koike’s HP. And although she chose not to run for the House of Representatives herself (citing her responsibilities as Tokyo Governor), expectations were that the new party might win more than half the percentage of the LDP’s vote share in the Proportional Representation tier of the two-tier lower House system (the other is a single-seat majoritarian tier). Then in early October, the Restoration Parity (RP; Ishin no Kai), primarily an Osaka regional party and the third largest opposition party that often cooperates with the LDP on policy, agreed a seat sharing electoral alliance with Koike’s HP. The small Liberal Party (LP) indicated it might cooperate with the HP too. Suddenly Abe’s gamble of renewing his large single-party majority in the House did not look like such a sure bet after all.

But the opposition wasn’t immune from disagreements or problems either. Some of the more left-of-centre members of the DPJ – including several former leaders and a former Prime Minister – rather than joining their colleagues in the HP or because Koike rejected them as too leftist, either established their own party, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ; Rikken Minshutō), or decided to run as independents.

The Campaign

Koike is as much a “hawk” on defence and North Korea as Abe, so the differences between the LDP and HP revolved around the economy and Abe’s implemention of a twice-delayed – because of its deep unpopularity – rise in the 8 percent consumption tax to 10 percent. The increase is necessary because of Japan’s massive public debt, the worst in the industrialised world, but previous hikes had slowed the already sluggish economy even further. This time he promised to soften the blow of hte increase by saying he would now devote part of the increase to education and social security.

Indeed, Abe’s LDP Manifesto announced on October 2nd and his speeches throughout the campaign emphasised the protection of Japanese citizens from the North Korea threat, including strengthening the US-Japan alliance; and using the consumption tax increase to fund free pre-school care for 3-5 year olds from low-income households. For the first time the LDP also concretely spelled out the specific items on the constitutional revision issue on which it wanted to initiate a debate: clarification of the status of the Self-Defence Forces; allowing suspension of parts of the Constitution in national emergencies; making education freer of costs; and further reform of the House of Councillors electoral system. Finally, it aimed at helping business adapt to the robot and artificial intelligence (AI) revolution. The Manifesto perfectly illustrates the LDP’s “Creative Conservatism” as T.J. Pempel once called it, that has helped keep the LDP successful for so long— a non-ideological, pragmatic and flexible mix of strong security and U.S. alliance and pro-business stances combined with a moderately liberal social welfare and safety net measures.

The less hawkish LDP’s coalition party, the CGP, in its Manifesto and speeches emphasised support for the LDP’s free education for pre-schoolers, continuing “stable politics,” but was vague on the issue of constitutional revision, including clarification of the SDF’s status.  The HP came up with their own detailed manifesto focusing on freezing the consumption tax increase and doing away with all nuclear energy by 2030, pushing its own free early education policies, and a more populist and reformist “Yurinomics” to replace Abe’s famous “Abenomics”. It only contained, however, a vague push for further debate on constitutional revision. Meanwhile, Koike came under pressure from her own party and criticism from other parties for her decision not to run for the Diet herself this time.

The election shaped up as a clear tri-pronged choice for Japanese voters: 1) the LDP and its CGP coalition partner pushing for some constitutional revision, continuation of nuclear power and increasing the consumption tax; 2) the HP and RP, conservative parties on foreign policy but wanting to freeze both nuclear power and the consumption tax; 3) a coalition of left wing parties (including the CDP and Japanese Communist Party, JCP) whose major aims were the opposition to constitutional revision, the tax increase and nuclear power. In part because of its leader Edano Yukio’s popularity, just a few days before the election, a poll indicated that the CDP surpassed the HP in support but both lagged far behind the LDP.

The Election Results

There were six less seats at stake since the malapportioned (between urban/rural districts) system had taken six seats away from rural areas, bringing the total seats at stake to 465. Voting took place on Sunday 22 October in the midst of a typhoon that depressed turnout to the 2nd lowest in the post-war era. The results barely changed the pre-election situation:

Pre-election Total Won SSD PR Gain/Loss
LDP 290 284 217 66 -6
CGP 34 29 8 21 -5
HP 57 50 17 32 -8
RP 14 11 3 7 -4
CDP 15 55 17 34 +40
JCP 21 12 1 11 -9
Other 2 2 1 0 0
Independent 38 23 23 0 -15

Every party except the new liberal CDP lost seats, but the LDP still won a majority of seats and with its coalition partner the CGP maintained the two-thirds majority necessary to override the Upper House and to pass constitutional revision.

Implications of the Election

Koike and the HP did not pull off the major setback that they had hoped for, and did especially badly in her Tokyo base. Indeed, the bigger change was how well the CDP did, surpassing the HP and becoming the largest opposition party. However, its seats are fewer than the DPJ had in the previous parliament. Koike remains in her prominent position as Governor of Tokyo with the ability to rebuild the HP and do better in the next, possibly post-Abe, election.  The consumption tax increase with its social welfare-education benefits is likely to pass and nuclear power generation continue, although probably not without fierce opposition from the opposition parties.

The 2017 election’s results were less significant for the outcome—which by the end of the campaign was predicted and predictable—than for the reformation of the party system it brought about. The splitting of the main opposition party, the DPJ, resulted in a shuffling of the parties around the traditional post-war major cleavage in Japanese politics:  defence and the US-Japan alliance. During the Cold War this is the division that divided and defined right and left in Japan: the pro-US military alliance LDP and the leftist Socialists and Communists that opposed it. After 1960, however, the conservatives preferred to emphasise their economic accomplishments rather than raise the controversial defence issue.  Despite the mass media’s continuing stereotypical labelling of Japan as “pacifist,” only leftist Socialists in fact deserved that label. A minority of the LDP and Japanese wanted to make Japan into a “normal nation” again with full rearmament, and a majority of the LDP and Japanese wanted less rearmament and defence confined to the home islands only (the so-called “Yoshida Doctrine”). The latter plus the leftists constituted Japan’s majority “anti-militarism” culture.

This division became muddled after the end of the Cold War and the electoral reform in 1994, running through the LDP and the DPJ instead of between parties. The 2017 election seems to have returned Japanese party politics and divisions over defence to the inter-party divisions of the earlier era, but this time with both the LDP and the other conservative opposition parties forming a parliamentary majority in favour of revising the constitution and lessening the antimilitarism culture. Some attempt to at least minimally revise the constitution by legitimising the Self-Defence Forces is likely.  Whether a majority of the Japanese public will support constitutional revision in the required subsequent referendum, however, remains to be seen.

Another significant outcome of this election is that perhaps for the first time in post-war politics, options on defence policy and constitutional revision were at the centre of the election’s issues and openly debated rather than implicit in the campaign.  Whether Abe achieves his goals of becoming Japan’s longest serving post-war prime minister and revising the constitution or not, that itself was a major change.

Ellis Krauss is professor emeritus of Japanese politics and policy-making at the School of Global Policy & Strategy, UC San Diego. He is a leading expert on Japanese politics and United States-Japan relations. His research interests surround Japan and the U.S. in Asia and Japanese foreign policy, reaching to domestic politics in Japan and the Japanese mass media. Image credit: CC by Ajswab/Wikimedia Commons.