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DPJ likely to struggle to retain control over the Upper House

Pranamita Baruah is Research Assistant at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • July 02, 2010

    Elections for Japan’s Upper House (House of Councillors) will be held on July 11, 2010. As this will be the first national election since the August 2009 Lower House election, the outcome will be crucial. It will have serious and multiple implications for Japanese politics, particularly for the DPJ-led government. This election will not only give voters the chance to express whether or not they are optimistic about the newly appointed Naoto Kan administration, it will also give them the opportunity to offer a verdict on whether or not the historic change in government has proved good for the nation so far.

    Around 438 candidates have filed their nominations for the Upper House election, in which half of the Chamber’s 242 seats are to be contested. The DPJ currently holds the majority in the Upper House. To maintain the lead, it needs to win at least 60 seats. An outright majority will not only help the DPJ to avoid a policy stalemate, but it will also make the ruling party less reliant on current or new coalition partners to pass bills smoothly. Failing to win a majority in the Upper House would undermine the party’s ability to push through its policy initiatives.

    After Kan’s assumption of office, public support for the new administration showed an uptrend. The high poll rating reflected public expectations of the new leadership after the Hatoyama administration’s miserable failure in implementing some of the significant pre-poll promises, including the relocation of the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma base outside Okinawa prefecture. But the inauguration of the Kan administration disappointed many as he decided to cut short a debate at the special Diet session so that the Upper House election could be held before public support for his administration started declining again. He did not even follow the traditional custom of extending the Diet session after every change of administration for a certain period to secure ample time for budget committee deliberations. Kan had to face the opposition ire, since his refusal to extend the Diet session resulted in the scrapping of important bills to reform the national servants system, to battle global warming and to reform Japan Post. Kan suggested hiking of consumption tax as one possible measure to restore the country’s battered economy. His suggestion was not appreciated by most Japanese, due to which the support for the Kan administration plummeted from 59 per cent to 50 per cent during a week that saw him float that idea. While emphasizing on strengthening the Japan-US alliance, Kan also expressed his intention to follow through the agreement reached by the Hatoyama administration with the US on the Futenma issue in May 2010. It is not clear how Kan is going to address this issue.

    That the Futenma issue is still a sore subject for the ruling DPJ-led government is reflected in the fact that it has decided not to field a candidate in Okinawa in the upcoming election. Earlier, the party held talks with the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and another local party to field a single candidate together from the prefecture. But this could not be implemented due to difference of opinion over the Futenma issue. The SDP ultimately decided to field an activist against the relocation plan as its candidate.

    Nevertheless, most of these issues have found mention in the manifestoes published by various political parties. As the 17-day long campaign for the election formally kicked off on June 24, the issue of hiking the consumption tax rate cropped up as the main issue in most of the manifestoes. This seems quite natural considering that Japan is suffering from deflation and a sluggish economic condition, with the government’s outstanding debt expected to reach 200 per cent of the GNP by the end of 2010. As the population greys, social welfare spending is also expected to increase more than 1 trillion yen a year, burdening the Japanese economy further.

    In its manifesto, the DPJ has proposed to raise the consumption tax rate from current 5 per cent to 10 per cent in the near future. But it has been assured that measures will be adopted to ease the burden of lower income earners in case the proposed hike is implemented. The DPJ has scrapped its earlier pledge to offer a monthly child allowance of 26,000 yen instead of the current 13,000 yen. Instead, it talks about local governments having the authority to use any increase in the allowance to provide childcare support to match conditions in each area. Measures like income support for farming households and a plan to abolish expressway tolls continue to find place in the DPJ manifesto. In the diplomatic and security fields, the party dropped its earlier pledge to re-examine the role of the US military base and calls for China to be more transparent in its national defence policy. Constitution revision however does not find a mention in the manifesto.

    The opposition LDP too has proposed a 10 per cent hike in consumption tax. It has also stated that the revenue from additional taxes should be used to provide social security benefits, such as pensions and medical and nursing care services, along with measures to deal with the declining birth rate. It has also been pledged that in case of such a hike, a reduced tax rate on food and other daily necessities will be introduced. The LDP has proposed scrapping the childcare allowance and creating a new programme to allow local governments to choose from policy options such as building new day-care services, providing free mid-day meal at school, etc. While stressing on its ‘conservative credo’, the party opposes the bills that allow married couples to use different surnames and gives foreign permanent residents in Japan the right to vote in local elections. In contrast to the DPJ manifesto, Constitution revision is at the top of the LDP’s election promises.

    The narrowing of policy differences between the DPJ and the LDP may alienate some section of the voters. That is where the smaller parties will play a vital role. In their manifestoes, New Komeito, the New Renaissance Party and the Sunrise Party of Japan have expressed a positive attitude towards a consumption tax hike, though they insist that it should be allowed only if the government drastically cuts spending. However, the People’s New Party (PNP), the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) strongly oppose the hike. In its manifesto, the New Komeito proposes a new form of welfare assistance to tackle problems such as mental illness, child abuse and solitary death. For its part, the SDP pledges to place greater importance on providing support and relief for Okinawa prefecture. The PNP, however, calls for spending 100 trillion yen in three years on measures to stimulate economic growth.

    Recently, Asahi Shimbun conducted a survey indicating a decline in public support for the ruling party which may benefit the opposition LDP to some extent. However, how far such poll results influence the upcoming election remains to be seen. Surveys have also been conducted in various constituencies to predict the results of the forthcoming election. A nationwide survey by the Yomiuri Shimbun indicated that while the ruling party has a substantial edge in the proportional representation portion of the Upper House, it will face tough competition from rival parties in the 47 prefectural constituencies. The PNP, which is a partner in the ruling coalition, will probably have a tough time in both the proportional representation and electoral district races. It is likely to win just one proportional representation seat, while three of its six seats are up for election. The survey indicates that in the end the ruling coalition may not be able to maintain its majority in the Upper house by securing the necessary 56 of the 121 seats to be contested. On the other hand, the LDP is expected to reap benefits from the DPJ government’s failure in implementing some of its earlier pledges and garner nearly 50 seats, far more than the 14 it won in the 2007 Upper House election. Among the smaller parties, New Komeito may face a problem in regaining its eleven seats to be contested, while the JCP and the SDP too may have similar problem in regaining their current four and three seats respectively. Interestingly, the recent surveys have indicated that among the new parties, Your Party, which currently has just one seat in the Upper House will be able to win as many as seven seats in the upcoming election. Despite all these predictions, given the high percentage of undecided voters, the situation could change dramatically towards the end of the election campaign. So, we just have to wait and watch how all these will play out in the July 11 polls.