Chances for Coalition and Cooperation
In the second half of 2012, with an eye on the potential political landscape following a general election, Japan’s ruling and opposition parties will escalate their leadership struggles in preparation for a possible early dissolution of the Diet.
The ruling Democratic Party of Japan and the opposition Liberal Democratic Party are both short of a majority in the House of Councillors. There are undercurrents today in the political scene showing both of the country’s major parties exploring possibilities for cooperation with one another, perhaps in a “grand coalition,” to achieve policy goals. Meanwhile, rising political groups like the Osaka Restoration Association, led by the charismatic mayor of Osaka, Hashimoto Tōru, may join forces to field candidates in the general election—which must be held no later than August 2013. Attention is increasingly focusing on the extent to which this coming contest will be one between established parties and rising political entities.
Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko staked his political career on a package of bills hiking the consumption tax and reforming Japan’s social security systems. These passed the lower house on June 26. This prompted members the DPJ who opposed the tax hike, including former party president Ozawa Ichirō, to leave the party and form a new party titled People’s Life First, including 49 Diet members. Ozawa had been with the Democrats since his Liberal Party merged with the DPJ in 2003; now he has parted ways with the main ruling party, splitting its ranks in the process.
The current session of the Diet runs through September 8. After it draws to a close, both the DPJ and the LDP will hold party elections to choose their presidents. The DPJ has reached agreement with the opposition LDP and New Kōmeitō on the consumption tax hike and related legislation, making it relatively certain that it will become law once deliberations are finished and the upper house votes on it. If this takes place during August, the question becomes whether Prime Minister Noda will accede to demands from the LDP and Kōmeitō for an early dissolution of the lower house.
A No-Confidence Motion in the Cards?
But there are other potentially destabilizing factors in play. One of these is the possibility that opposition factions will line up the 51 votes needed to submit a no-confidence motion in the lower house. This motion would take precedence over all other legislation, and should it pass, it would leave Noda with no choice but to either dissolve the House of Representatives or step down as prime minister.
There is a chance that Ozawa’s People’s Life First party, the Your Party, and other opposition forces will join to submit a no-confidence motion before the tax hike bill makes it through the upper house. If the LDP and New Kōmeitō throw their weight behind the motion and are joined by as few as 15 or so rebellious members of Noda’s own party, the motion could pass, bringing his administration down. We could even see the prime minister backed into a corner where his only options are to dissolve the lower chamber and call a snap election or to step down and put someone else in the premier’s chair.
The new, smaller parties are likely to influence the way things move forward. Hashimoto’s Osaka Restoration Association, which champions the reform of Japan’s administrative institutions, is preparing to field a considerable number of candidates in the upcoming lower house election. Tokyo Governor Ishihara Shintarō is among the high-profile figures ready to support these new parties.
A number of public opinion polls have shown the Osaka Restoration Association to have enough popular support to worry the DPJ and LDP. Ozawa Ichirō, meanwhile, appears ready to forge alliances with the rising political forces. Hashimoto’s group has moved cautiously so far in reaching out to Ozawa, but if it does join forces with his People’s Life First party, or with the DPJ members who were less supportive of the consumption tax hike, it will certainly breathe fresh wind into their sails.
New Versus Old
In the meantime, Prime Minister Noda must continue walking a precarious path. His basic strategy at this point is likely to get the tax hike and other bills passed, to be re-elected as party president (thereby remaining prime minister), and then to dissolve the House of Representatives and give the people their say in a general election by January 2013. But another task on his agenda is to gain the LDP’s cooperation in passing legislation to issue the deficit bonds needed to cover budget spending for fiscal 2012. Yet another tall challenge awaiting Noda is the need to rectify the imbalance in the value of votes in Japan’s least and most populous electoral districts. (I wrote on this issue in March this year.)
The Liberal Democrats, who still entertain the idea of wresting power back from the DPJ, are also looking at a complex situation with a presidential election on the slate for September. LDP leader Tanigaki Sadakazu hopes to use the current Diet session to press Prime Minister Noda into a snap election, but as of now he has no clear roadmap for achieving this. The LDP itself is home to multiple camps, with more aggressive members pushing for an early Diet dissolution and the party elders at the core of a group hoping to see the election take place in autumn 2012 or later.
In any case, we should see a dynamic where the top two parties, the DPJ and the LDP, continue to grow closer—including the possibility of a future grand coalition—as the threat of the new parties rises. Japan may well see a realignment of political forces extending to its main established parties when the next general election rolls around.
If, on the other hand, the DPJ and LDP view the new parties as having only limited momentum, they will likely diverge on the policy front, pushing harder to get their own platforms implemented. This could lead to a tripolar dynamic in the political arena, with the two main parties at two corners and the new parties at the third. The coming general election will offer ample opportunity for substantive debate—on the consumption tax hike, of course, but also on the future of Japan’s pension and other social welfare systems, post-Fukushima energy policy, and the state of the nation’s administrative frameworks, including the question of revisions to the Constitution.
(Originally written in Japanese on July 19, 2012.)
Editorial board member of the Mainichi Shimbun. Born in Sapporo, Hokkaidō. Joined the staff of the Mainichi Shimbun in 1985. Began reporting on politics in 1989. Held various positions at the newspaper, including lead reporter at the Kantei (the prime minister's office) and political editor, prior to assuming his current post.