Japan Politics in 2019: Challenges Ahead for Prime Minister Abe in the Year of the Boar


The coming year for Prime Minister Abe will be dominated by the upper house election due to be held in the summer, with the outcome likely affecting his chances of achieving his long-held ambition of revising the Constitution.

As the Year of the Boar gets underway in Japan, Japanese politicians have dual elections to look forward to as voters cast ballots in both House of Councillors and nationwide local elections. With a little under three years left in his third consecutive term as president of the Liberal Democratic Party, Abe Shinzō knows that his time as prime minister will come to an end in September 2021 at the latest. During his remaining time in office, he will look to fulfill one of his enduring political ambitions of amending the Constitution. He will also try to resolve the drawn-out dispute over the Northern Territories that has bedeviled Japan’s relations with Russia since the end of World War II, and the long-standing issue of the fate of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea.

Much hinges on the outcome of the upper house elections, which will be the biggest political battle for Abe in 2019. Below I consider if Abe will succeed in exerting the control over his party and the rest of the Diet necessary for making progress on priority issues.

The Historical Defeat of 2007

Some suggest that elections for the upper house held in the Year of the Boar work to the disadvantage of parties like the LDP and its coalition partner Kōmeitō, which rely heavily on the power of their party machines, since their local assembly members and support organizations are exhausted following the local elections in the spring immediately before the upper house elections. The last time this happened, during Abe’s first stint in office in 2007, the LDP came in for severe criticism from voters over mismanagement of pension records and other problems, and only managed to win 37 seats. The drubbing resulted in the LDP for the first time since its foundation giving up its majority in the upper house. The opposition led by the Democratic Party of Japan (precursor of the Democratic Party) took a majority of seats, leading to a “twisted Diet” in which no party controlled both houses. Abe’s difficulties were compounded by health problems, and he was driven to resign two months later.

Members of the House of Councillors serve six-years terms. During the regular Diet in 2018, a bill revising the Public Officials Election Act passed, increasing the number of upper house seats to 248, up 6 from the current 242, over the next two elections. Half of the seats in the upper house are up for election every three years, meaning that the 2019 election will see the number of seats up for grabs increase from 121 to 124. Following this year’s election, the house will have 245 seats, 121 of which will not be at stake next year, with 123 seats being the new total required for a majority. The LDP currently holds 123 seats in the house, following the December 25, 2018, death of upper house member Kōnoike Yoshitada, giving it the barest stand-alone majority; more than half of these members will be up for re-election in the 2019 contest.

The last time these seats were contested in the 2013 election, the LDP won a convincing victory, taking 65 seats, a record number under the present system, bringing the “twisted Diet” to an end. Of the 31 single-member seats up for grabs, the LDP won 29 seats and lost only 2, gaining an overwhelming victory.

But the mood surrounding the LDP has changed considerably since that convincing victory six years ago, helped by widespread support for Abe and his cabinet at the time. Although the cabinet’s support rating has rallied somewhat in recent opinion polls from the low levels seen at one stage, the public attitude to the prime minister continues to be skeptical following scandals concerning his possible involvement in funding irregularities at the Moritomo Gakuen and Kakei Gakuen schools. Some surveys suggest that the number of voters disapproving of Abe’s performance is as high as those who support him. Many within the party are therefore approaching the 2019 elections in a fearful mood, and the prevailing opinion within the LDP is that the party should expect to lose at least some of the seats it currently holds. The LDP will look to join forces with Kōmeitō, Nippon Ishin no Kai, and other parties that support changing the Constitution so to garner the necessary two-thirds majority to pass a constitutional-amendment bill, but many expect this to be a difficult hurdle.

Can the Opposition Pull Together?

The battle for control of the upper house will be decided in the 32 single-member seats, including merged constituencies. One important question will be how successfully the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and the other opposition parties will be in uniting against the LDP. In 2016, the DP and the Japanese Communist Party banded together to field a single candidate in each single-member district. As a result, the opposition claimed victory in 11 electoral districts, including 5 of the 6 Tōhoku prefectures, Mie, Ōita, and Okinawa, showing that impressive results can be achieved if parties pool their resources and field a single candidate.

This time too, there is a consensus among the opposition on the importance of uniting to oppose the Abe government. However, lingering resentment between the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and the Democratic Party for the People, which split from the DP, and relations with the JCP, which demands mutual recommendations and support among the opposition, are proving to be stumbling blocks to closer cooperation. Negotiations to resolve these differences have so far failed to make much progress. Nevertheless, the opposition parties will stand little chance of winning if they go it alone, and the odds are that they will eventually find a way to field a single candidate in most single-member districts.

Chances of a Breakthrough on the Northern Territories

In January 2019, the prime minister will travel to Russia for talks with President Vladimir Putin about the disputed Northern Territories and negotiations on a final peace treaty between the two nations. The aim is to reach a general agreement on treaty negotiations by the time Putin visits Japan in June for the G20 summit in Osaka. The two leaders have agreed to speed up progress on treaty negotiations based on the Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration of 1956, which proposed ceding the two islands of Habomai and Shikotan to Japan.

The prime minister seems to have shifted from the previous position, which prioritized solving the question of sovereignty over all four of the disputed islands, including Kunashiri and Etorofu to a position that will settle at least initially for a concession of the two islands of Habomai and Shikotan. Once negotiations enter a decisive stage, the prime minister will inevitably become sensitive to shifts in Japanese public opinion.

For this reason, there are speculations among both the government and opposition parties that the prime minister may opt to dissolve the House of Representatives at the end of the ordinary session of the Diet in 2019 and call a general election on the issue of resolving the territorial dispute, with an election to be held on the same day as the upper house election in the summer.

The Difficulties of Amending the Constitution Before the Upper House Election

At a press conference marking the end of the extraordinary session of the Diet in December 2018, the prime minister reiterated his aim to pass constitutional amendments by 2020. However, he was forced to abandon his original plan to submit the LDP’s proposed amendments during the extraordinary session owing to heightened tensions between the government and opposition parties. This was partly due to the opposition’s response to the actions and remarks made by some of the prime minister’s close allies appointed to important positions relating to the constitutional debate, and partly to Kōmeitō’s refusal to alter its noncommittal wait-and-see position on amending the Constitution.

The LDP’s approach now will be to rethink its strategy for placing an initiative to change the Constitution before the Diet. The ordinary session of the Diet is due to convene in January, but this session will be dominated by debates over the budget for fiscal 2019 until the end of March. And considering the number of important items on the agenda from April on—including the local elections, the abdication of the present emperor, and the accession to the throne of the current crown prince in his place—it will be extremely difficult for the government to make any substantial progress before the upper house elections. Although it is possible that the government might get a bill through at a later time, if the parties in favor of amending the Constitution lose their two-thirds majority, the prime minister’s chances of fulfilling his cherished ambition will recede beyond reach.

(Originally written in Japanese. Banner photo: Prime Minister Abe Shinzō at a press conference following the closing conclusion of the extraordinary session of the Diet on December 10, 2018. © Jiji.)

Abe Shinzō LDP constitution