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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:33 03/09/2007
Commentary (July 15, 2004)

Another Step toward a Two-party System

J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM and Asia Times)

J. Sean CurtinThe Upper House election held Sunday turned out to be an extremely close battle, as well as another significant milestone on the road to establishing a two-party system in Japan. The main opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) made sweeping gains. It effectively challenged Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and his long-dominant Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), knocking them into a humiliating second place.

Koizumi, the charismatic leader who promised reform and sent Japanese troops into Iraq, suffered a humiliating setback, while the opposition scored significant gains and ushered in what might become an authentic two-party system. Koizumi himself was not running for election.

The LDP still maintains a majority in the Upper House, along with its partner, the New Komeito, and it retains a majority in the powerful Lower House. Still, this is not good news for the party that has dominated Japanese politics almost continuously since its formation in 1955, with one brief spell in opposition in the early 1990s. Japan has about 125 million people, including about 102 eligible voters. Voter turnout was more than 56%.

Pensions and Iraq key election issues
Despite good economic news and great strides towards resolving the North Korean abduction issue, Koizumi and the LDP could not counter deep public anger over recently implemented pension reforms (in which ordinary citizens pay more for less and it was revealed that many leaders paid nothing at all over some years). There was also anger over the dispatch of Japanese troops to Iraq.

Both pre and post-election analysis confirms that pension reform and the deployment of Japanese troops in Iraq were key election issues. According to as series of telephone polls conducted by the Yomiuri Shimbun in the month leading up to polling day, more than 50 percent of those who said they did not support the Koizumi Cabinet cited pension reform for motivating their decision. A further 30 percent plus said the LDP failed to gain their support due to its Iraq policy. In the pre-election Yomiuri polls, these two issues far outweighed all others.

In a post-election Yomiuri Shimbun poll conducted two days after polling, respondents were asked why the LDP lost seats in the Upper House election. 55 percent said it was due to voters' dissatisfaction with the recent pension reform legislation, while 15 percent attributed the loss to disapproval of the decision to allow the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to participate in a multinational force in Iraq.

However, in a post-election Kyodo News opinion survey, Iraq was a less prominent issue. According to this poll, 40.2 percent of people said pension reform was a key factor in deciding who to vote for in the poll, followed by 30.1 percent who cited the state of the economy. These issues were followed by 7.9 percent who mentioned the constitution, 7.3 percent who chose Iraq and 5.5 percent who selected North Korea.

Although the election results do not threaten the government, as it controls the more powerful Lower House, they are a setback for the LDP and Koizumi's authority. The upper chamber holds an election every three years, when half the seats are contested.

The LDP had set itself a goal of 51 seats; when all the ballots were finally tallied, the opposition DPJ had captured an impressive 50 seats, representing a handsome increase of 12 on the 38 it held going into the poll. The LDP came an embarrassing second with 49 seats, failing to achieve its modest target of 51 seats. The New Komeito Party (NK) chalked up 11 seats, one more than its stated goal.

At the other end of the spectrum, it was a catastrophe for the two smaller opposition parties, both of which may sustain mortal wounds. The Japanese Communist Party (JCP) won only four seats, while the Social Democratic Party (SDP) was lucky to end up with two.

The election also witnessed the dramatic end of Koizumi's incredible winning streak, denting his golden-boy image and giving ammunition to his many party rivals. The LDP only retained power in the Upper House thanks to a good performance by the New Komeito (NK), its junior coalition partner. This fact will probably lead to renewed friction between the two parties and may cause headaches for Koizumi's plans to revise the war-renouncing constitution.

Koizumi defiant, but bruised
Despite the bitter electoral blow, Koizumi remained defiant, even if he must have felt a little bruised.

Koizumi made it clear he has no plans to resign and tried to put the setback in context, reminding voters, "The number of seats is not so important. What is important is retaining our majority with our coalition ally [New Komeito]."

In this respect, Koizumi was on solid ground. Together, the two coalition partners easily won more than the 50 seats necessary for retaining a comfortable majority of 129 seats in the 242-seat Upper House. A simple majority requires 121 seats, but with their combined 139 seat total, they have more than enough strength to pass bills through all the chamber's various panels, as well as the plenary session.

With a majority already in the more powerful Lower House, political supremacy is in no doubt for the coalition. The next general election does not have to be held until late 2007. Koizumi expressed the situation in simple terms, "We will still be in power for the next three years."

Even so, some of his LDP rivals are likely to take a harsher view. Since the LDP was founded in 1955, this is only the second time that the number of Upper House seats it has won in an election has failed to exceed those won by other parties. The last time it suffered such a setback was in the 1989, when it picked up a mere 36 seats. Back then the Japan Socialist Party, the predecessor of the Social Democratic Party, won 46 seats. This was enough to force the then prime minister, Sousuke Uno, to resign. The LDP went on to lose the subsequent 1993 Lower House election to a coalition of opposition parties.

Koizumi has probably done well enough to keep his job and keep at bay the wolves in his own party from going for his jugular. Even so, it will probably take a few weeks for the shock waves to completely die down, and some of the premier's bitterest party rivals are certain to demand his head.

Post-election opinion surveys will also give the prime minister some comfort. A Yomiuri Shimbun poll found that 58 percent of respondents still want him to stay in office, while 28 percent thought he should resign. Amongst LDP supporters, 85 percent said he should continue as prime minister and 40 percent of DPJ supporters also agreed.

On the other hand, a Kyodo News poll found public support for the Koizumi administration has dropped to a record 38.9 percent. The disapproval rate hit 51 percent, passing 50 percent threshold for the first time since Koizumi took office.

While he will probably remain in office, what this election has done is make Koizumi look vulnerable, giving him his first real defeat since he became LDP leader in April 2001. The results graphically illustrate the fall in the premier's personal popularity. The last time he fought the triennial Upper House poll was in 2001, then his popularity helped his party pick up 66 seats.

Two-party system established
During the last week of campaigning, opinion polls showed the two main parties were running neck-and-neck, with the DPJ just slightly ahead. As soon as the first detailed results started coming in on election night, it was obvious that a two-party system had taken root and that the DPJ had built on the momentum it gained in last November's general election.

In almost every constituency, it was a clear two-way battle between the LDP and DPJ. Competition was especially tough in the one-seat constituencies, where some of the fiercest battles between the two rivals occurred.

The final DPJ victory was a stunning achievement for the party and its dynamic new leader, Katsuya Okuda, who took up his post barely a month ago. Although he cannot quite match Koizumi for flare, he has managed to inject a new sense of purpose into the party. Under his leadership, the DPJ has succeeded in projecting a bright and positive image of itself as a viable opposition party. This combined with a well-chosen selection of youthful-looking candidates helped the party to attract a large swathe of floating voters.

A Kyodo News exit poll showed that 50.8 percent of unaffiliated voters who cast ballots supported the DPJ, while 18 percent opted for the LDP. The level of floating voter support for other parties was 9 percent for New Komeito, 8.5 percent for the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) and 6.6 percent for the Social Democratic Party (SDP). The survey estimated that about 19.2 percent of those who cast ballots could be classified as unaffiliated voters.

According to a nationwide Kyodo News telephone survey conducted on the Monday and Tuesday after the election, 48.2 percent welcomed the move toward a two-party system while 13 percent did not. A Yomiuri Shimbun poll produced an even more positive result finding that 68 percent of respondents were happy with the rapid shift towards a dual party system, while only 16 percent said they were unhappy with such a development.

Okuda also proved that he can hold his own against the telegenic Koizumi. Indeed, as the results came in, the confident-sounding Okuda actually started to outshine the poker-faced prime minister.

A post-election Yomiuri Shimbun poll found that the approval rating for DPJ has hit 30.2 percent, surpassing the LDP approval rating of 28.7 percent. This was the DPJ's highest ever rating in the poll and the first time it has overtaken the LDP.

New Komeito maximizes its vote
It was only in the larger three to four-seat constituencies that the LDP's junior coalition partner, New Komeito (NK), made any real impact. In Tokyo four seats were contested, with the DPJ capturing two and the LDP one. NK had a tough battle to win the remaining seat, beating off a strong challenge from the city's former governor, Yukio Aoshima, who fought on an anti-war platform.

In the three-seat Osaka constituency, the LDP and DPJ easily won, while NK again was lucky to secure the remaining seat. This time it had to fend off independent Kiyomi Tsujimoto, a convicted former SDP lawmaker. The NK also came in third behind the DPJ and LDP in Saitama Prefecture.

In the end, NK won three directly elected seats and picked up another eight in the proportional representation seats. Close cooperation with the LDP allowed NK to maximize its vote and pick up an impressive 11 seats. However, if it were not for this electoral pact, the party would probably have suffered a similar fate to that of the two small opposition parties.

Small parties face extinction
For the JCP and the SDP, the results were a devastating, if not fatal, blow. In previous elections they have been the beneficiaries of protest votes, but now it appears that this function has become the sole domain of the DPJ.

The communists had hoped to retain 12 of their 15 contested seats, but were lucky to end up with four proportional representation seats. For the first time since 1959, the JCP did not win a single constituency seat, even losing its Tokyo seat, which it won in 1992.

In the directly elected constituencies, the JCP garnered 5.52 million votes, or 9.84 percent of all ballots cast. In the proportional representation section it attracted 4.36 million votes, or 7.8 percent of all ballots cast.

JCP leader, Kazuo Shii, said he would not be stepping down to take responsibility for his party's poll drubbing. He admitted that it was difficult for his party in the new two-party climate. He observed, "We were unable to sway public opinion amid the flow of voters deciding to opt for either the LDP or DPJ."

The results were even grimmer for the SDP, winning just two proportional seats. It is the second time that the party has failed to win any seats in the directly elected constituencies. In those constituencies, the party obtained 984,340 votes representing 1.75 percent of all ballots cast, and in the proportional representation portion they received 2.99 million votes, or 5.35 percent.

SDP leader Mizuho Fukushima said after the poll, "I do not think it is likely that we will join hands with the DPJ." However, it would not be surprising if the SDP did decide to merge with the DPJ, their only other alternative is extinction.

The demise of the small parties further emphasizes the arrival of a two-party system. It is almost impossible to see how the JCP and the SDP can survive after these and the setbacks they sustained in last November's Lower House election.

DPJ gains real momentum
Although the DPJ triumph in the Upper House polls does not give the party any extra power, it certainly gives it lot of momentum. Just like in 1989 when the LDP was defeated in the Upper House poll, the opposition may be able to build on their gains to win in the next Lower House election, which determines the prime minister and cabinet.

DPJ leader Okada has already mapped out the long road ahead for his party, "The challenge for us is to continue to advance the trend toward a two-party system and then to take power from the LDP in the next general election."

We will probably have to wait until sometime around 2007 to see if he succeeds.

Results (directly elected + proportional)
DPJ 50 (31 + 19)
LDP 49 (34 + 15)
NK 11 (3 + 8)
JCP 4 (0 + 4)
SDP 2 (0 + 2)
INP 5 (5 + 0)

Of the 121 seats, 73 were filled by the winners in 47 electoral districts and 48 by those elected under the proportional representation block.

In the proportional representation section, the DPJ came top with the largest share of seats, winning 19 of the 47 seats to the LDP's 15.

In the directly elected constituencies, the LDP won 34 seats and the DPJ gained 31.

Voter turnout was estimated to be about 56.57% in the constituency section, above the 56.44% turnout recorded in 2001. The population is about 125 million, including 102 million eligible voters.

(Some parts of this article first appeared in Asia Times Online on 12 July 2004,, and all those sections are republished with permission. Copyright of these particular section belongs to Asia Times Online Ltd.)

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