No. 24 — June 23, 2000

 

Weekly Review

AND THEY'RE OFF! CAMPAIGNS BEGIN FOR LOWER HOUSE POLLS
--- by Barbara Wanner

Official campaigning began June 13 for the June 25 lower house elections. These contests will give voters their first opportunity in nearly four years to pass judgment on the leadership of the Liberal Democratic Party-led government, which includes the New Komeito and the New Conservative Party. According to a June 18 poll by Kyodo Wire Service, 44 percent of the electorate still is undecided. In an effort to capture the support of this powerful, election-swinging bloc of uncommitted voters, the 1,404 candidates fielded by the ruling parties and the four main opposition groups — the Democratic Party of Japan, the Japan Communist Party, the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party of Japan (see Table) — hit the hustings with abandon.

Candidacy Breakdown for the June 25 Lower House Elections

Party

Total
Candidates

Single-Seat
Constituencies

Proportional
Representation

Seats Held
in Last Diet

Liberal Democratic Party

337

271

326 (260)

271

New Komeito

74

18

63 (7)

42

New Conservative Party

19

16

3 (0)

18

Democratic Party of Japan

262

242

259 (239)

95

Japan Communist Party

332

300

66 (34)

26

Liberal Party

75

61

72 (58)

18

Social Democratic Party of Japan

76

71

76 (71)

14

Minor Parties/Independents

229

220

39 (30)

15

Total

1,404

1,199

904 (699)

499

Notes: Numbers in parenthesis indicate how many candidates are registered for both single-seat and proportional-representation districts. One vacancy exists in the lower house due to the death of former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi.

Source: "Party Chiefs Launch Campaigns," The Japan Times, June 14, 2000, p. 3.

The electorate's collective thumbs-up or thumbs-down on the candidates backed by the ruling parties will determine whether Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori remains in charge or earns the dubious distinction along with Prime Minister Sousuke Uno in 1989 and Prime Minister Tsutomu Hata in 1994 of having served one of the shortest terms in postwar history. Mr. Mori, a former LDP secretary general, was elected in early April to succeed then-Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, who had been incapacitated by a stroke and subsequently died (see JEI Report No. 21B, May 26, 2000).

LDP officials indicated in early June that the senior governing party aimed to win 229 of the 254 seats that the triparty coalition targeted in what will be a 480-member lower house. When it was dissolved June 2, the House of Representatives had 500 members, 331 of whom belonged to one of the ruling parties. However, this past February, as part of a deal designed to cement the shaky union among the LDP, the New Komeito and the Liberal Party, the trio pushed through the Diet legislation that reduced the number of proportional-representation seats by 20 to 180 (see JEI Report No. 5B, February 4, 2000). Two months later, the Liberal Party left the government and was replaced by the New Conservative Party, which is composed of former Liberal Party members who remained aligned with the LDP and the New Komeito (see JEI Report No. 14B, April 7, 2000).

On paper at least, voter behavior will be influenced by a number of important policy matters, including an assessment of how the government has managed the long-stumbling economy and particularly its heavy reliance on fiscal stimulus. However, many experts believe that the people who go to the polls may use the ballot box to register their disgust with the insider maneuvering and the machinations that still characterize Japan's political system despite reforms enacted in 1994.

The LDP's October 1999 decision to bring the centrist, Buddhist-backed New Komeito into the governing fold has been criticized in particular as nothing more than an opportunistic move aimed at clinching control of both Diet houses. The Liberal Party's subsequent split from its partners seemed to lend further credence to the view that politics rather than ideology continues to shape alliances and policymaking.

For the same reasons, critics have lambasted the LDP for the closed-door procedure used to select Mr. Mori for the nation's highest office (see JEI Report No. 15B, April 14, 2000). Voters also may believe that this process was a politically expedient action that warrants a rebuke. And the premier himself may have hammered a few nails into his own coffin with several politically insensitive remarks that he refused to retract and a grievous error in protocol at Mr. Obuchi's funeral (see JEI Report No. 22B, June 9, 2000, and No. 23B, June 16, 2000). With his administration's approval ratings in the 13 percent to 19 percent range — the lowest ever recorded by a government just prior to an election — it is no wonder that some LDP candidates have requested that Mr. Mori not campaign on their behalf.

Seemingly undaunted, Mr. Mori went on the attack during a June 12 policy debate among the leaders of the seven major political parties held at the National Press Club in Tokyo. He countered opposition criticism of his government's plummeting approval ratings, arguing that most Japanese still lack a "mature comprehension" of the implications of the coalition. "What's most important is the stability of the government [realized by forming the coalition]," he said, adding that a full-fledged economic recovery is not possible in the absence of such an arrangement.

Mr. Mori went on to criticize DPJ leader Yukio Hatoyama for not having given voters a clear picture of the policies, membership and organization of an alternative government. In campaign speeches, Mr. Hatoyama has promised a nonruling-party administration committed to ending the LDP's overreliance on pork-barrel spending and its collusion with business executives and bureaucrats in protecting certain interest groups (see JEI Report No. 22A, June 9, 2000). Rebutting the premier, the DPJ chief said that he viewed the current tripartite government "as an example of what not to follow." Mr. Hatoyama also referred to the controversial motives behind Mr. Obuchi's decision to bring the New Komeito on board, adding, "I would not like to have the idea that securing an overwhelming number [of lawmakers to dominate the Diet] should be the top priority."

An overview of the opposition parties' platform statements on economic policy suggests, however, that Mr. Mori's criticisms may not be off target and that, in fact, Mr. Hatoyama might face considerable difficulties in cobbling together a ruling coalition. For example, to reduce the nation's already huge and still burgeoning public debt, the DPJ has proposed lowering the minimum threshold for personal income taxation, introducing an environmental tax on carbon-based fuels used to generate power and cutting public works spending by 30 percent over 10 years.

The archly conservative Liberal Party, however, advocates halving income taxes at the national and local levels, while the SDPJ favors imposing taxes on an individual basis rather than on family income. Although Mr. Hatoyama has ruled out joining hands with the JCP, it is significant nonetheless that the Communists have a different position on taxes — one that focuses on reducing the consumption tax rate from the current 5 percent to 3 percent.

In contrast, the LDP, the New Komeito and the New Conservative Party generally share the view that fiscal reform should be postponed until there is evidence of a sustainable recovery. They also favor targeting public monies toward the growth of Japan's information technology sector.

A similar lack of cohesion is apparent in the opposition parties' policy planks covering national security and diplomacy. The LDP, the New Komeito and the New Conservative Party are united in their belief that the U.S.-Japan security relationship is important and that Japan should play a more active role in United Nations-sponsored peacekeeping activities. The DPJ calls for "expanding the scope of Japan's participation in U.N. peacekeeping missions," while the Liberal Party is promoting the more ambitious goal of "[a]ctive participation in international peacekeeping operations." The highly pacifistic SDPJ urges, however, that the "ideals of the war-renouncing Article IX [of the constitution should] be maintained."

These differences are bound to confuse and concern the electorate and may explain in part why the LDP comes out on top in surveys of proportional-seat winners. Voters in Japan basically cast two ballots: one for a candidate running in one of the 300 single-seat, winner-take-all races and the other for the party of his or her choice. Based on the latter ballot, parties are awarded seats in the lower house according to their proportional share of the total vote. A June 12 Kyodo poll revealed that 16 percent of the respondents would award their proportional vote to the LDP, while only 8 percent favored the DPJ.

If the July 1998 upper house elections are any indication, the DPJ may score big in metropolitan areas (see JEI Report No. 27B, July 17, 1998). The Kyodo poll suggested a continuation of that trend, with 11 percent of city dwellers reporting that they would vote for the Democrats and only 9 percent endorsing the LDP. But the LDP has a formidable network of local support groups that mobilize party stalwarts in urban and rural areas alike. That get-out-the-vote machine, pundits contend, gives the Liberal Democrats an edge. Moreover, the three ruling parties have made an effort to coordinate their candidates to avoid having coalition-backed politicians compete against each other in single-seat races.

At this stage, the unknown but make-or-break electoral variable is the extent of public anger with the powers-that-be. On the one hand, Japan's notoriously ambivalent voters simply may stay at home, feeling that it is better to "go with the devil you know" than take a chance on an untested leadership alternative. On the other hand, Mr. Mori's gaffes may have pushed public opinion over the edge, particularly in major metropolitan areas. In addition to questioning Mr. Mori's fitness for leadership, the largely nonaligned bloc of urban voters is resentful that the LDP's pump-priming mainly has funded public works projects in the hinterlands.

If the DPJ can tap into the long-simmering discontent of city dwellers, Mr. Hatoyama may emerge as a force to be reckoned with. But even given that scenario, analysts bet that the three ruling parties will win at least 241 seats in the lower house and, thus, maintain a simple majority. Whether Mr. Mori continues as Japan's prime minister is a different question altogether.

The views expressed in this report are those of the author
and do not necessarily represent those of the Japan Economic Institute

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