No. 25 — June 30, 2000

 

Weekly Review

RULING PARTIES HANG ON TO LOWER HOUSE MAJORITY, ENDORSE MORI AS PREMIER
--- by Barbara Wanner

After weeks of speculation that gaffe-prone Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori might drag his three-party ruling coalition down to defeat in the June 25 lower house elections, the Liberal Democratic Party and its allies, the New Komeito and the New Conservative Party, emerged victorious — albeit barely. The alliance clinched a 271-seat absolute majority in the 480-member House of Representatives, exceeding by 17 its target of 254 seats. The results mean that the LDP, the New Komeito and the New Conservative Party will continue to chair all standing committees in the lower house. That control, at least in theory, should facilitate action on key legislation. But the 56.5 percent of seats now occupied by members of the three parties is a far cry from the two-thirds share they had before the elections.

Nonetheless, the electoral outcome appears to have bought Mr. Mori more time in office. The day after the polls, senior LDP officials and the leaders of the New Komeito and the New Conservative Party endorsed his reelection as premier. Just as important, Mr. Mori received crucial backing from the LDP faction headed by former LDP Secretary General Koichi Kato — who has made no secret of his own ambitions for the nation's highest elected position — as well as from the faction led by former LDP policy chief Taku Yamasaki. Mr. Mori said that he hopes to convene a special Diet session July 4 for the express purpose of formally naming a prime minister, a vote that he is guaranteed to win given the coalition's majority in the House of Representatives.

Suggesting that continuity rather than change will characterize his second administration, Mr. Mori indicated that he wants to keep Finance Minister Kiichi Miyazawa and Foreign Minister Yohei Kono in their posts as well as retain Hiromu Nonaka as LDP secretary general, the party's second-in-command. The reappointments of Messrs. Miyazawa and Kono, in particular, will help to ensure that policy-related preparations for the July 21-23 summit on Okinawa of the leaders of the Group of Seven industrial nations plus Russia proceed smoothly, Mr. Mori said. The premier also suggested that a legislator from the New Komeito as well as one from the New Conservative Party may be invited to join his new cabinet.

But the election results hardly were a rousing endorsement of Mr. Mori and his triparty government. While the LDP secured 233 seats, surpassing the 229-seat goal set by Mr. Nonaka (see JEI Report No. 22B, June 9, 2000), the legislative ranks of the largest party still were thinned by 38 (see Table). This was the most substantial shift in power since the Liberal Democrats lost 36 seats in the 1983 lower house elections after a court convicted former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka for his actions in the 1976 Lockheed Corp. bribery scandal. In contrast, the Democratic Party of Japan, the main opposition group, boosted its Diet representation by 32 members, while the Social Democratic Party of Japan and the Liberal Party augmented their lower house totals by five seats and four seats, respectively. Many analysts had predicted that the smaller opposition parties would be pummeled in the elections.
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Outcome of the June 25 Lower House Elections

Party

Total[1]

Single-Seat Constituencies

Proporational Representation

Seats Held
in Last Diet[2]

Liberal Democratic Party

233

177

56

271

New Komeito

31

7

24

42

New Conservative Party

7

7

0

18

aaa
Democratic Party of Japan

aaa
127

aaa
80

aaa
47

aaa
95

Liberal Party

22

4

18

18

Japan Communist Party

20

0

20

26

Social Democratic Party of Japan

19

4

15

14

Minor Parties/Independents

21

21

0

15

Total

480

300

180

499

[1]These were the first lower house elections under a new plan, enacted in January 2000, that features 300 single-seat constituencies and 180 seats awarded according to a party's proportional share of the total vote.
[2]Previously, the lower house had 500 members — 300 represented single-seat constituencies and 200 were awarded proportional-representation seats. Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi's May 14 death created one vacancy.

Source: Kyodo Wire Service, June 26, 2000.

Moreover, the Liberal Democrats lost the simple majority that they had enjoyed in the 500-seat chamber before it was dissolved for elections. Now the party will be even more dependent on the support of its two partners to govern the country. In fact, some commentators regard Mr. Mori's suggestion that cabinet posts might be awarded to a member each from the New Komeito and the New Conservative Party as a ploy to keep these parties snugly in the governing fold.

The final ballots barely had been counted when rumors began to swirl that the New Komeito might pull out of the coalition because of its poor performance at the polls. The centrist party, which is backed by the Soka Gakkai Buddhist lay group, incurred an 11-seat loss. New Komeito chief Takenori Kanzaki described this showing as "extremely severe," attributing it to problems with electoral cooperation among the three ruling parties.

In an effort to promote their unity and the stable leadership it would produce, the coalition chiefs stumped together during the 12-day campaign period, issued a common platform and coordinated single-seat races. Starting with the June 25 elections, the lower house is composed of 300 single-seat constituencies and 180 seats awarded to parties based on their proportional share of the total vote. Larger parties, which have bigger war chests and deeper pools of candidates, generally have advantages over smaller parties in single-seat races. With that in mind, the LDP did not field candidates in more than a dozen single-seat districts and instead urged its supporters to vote for the people backed by the New Komeito and the New Conservative Party. Those parties likewise asked their members to support LDP hopefuls in the races in which the smaller parties had chosen not to run candidates.

While the New Komeito's notoriously disciplined 7.5 million Soka Gakkai supporters seemed to have faithfully voted for the more than 160 recommended LDP candidates, Liberal Democrats apparently were not so obedient. According to exit polls conducted by Japan's largest daily, Yomiuri Shimbun, and its affiliated Nippon Television Network Corp., 50 percent of those claiming to be New Komeito supporters voted for a LDP candidate. However, only 2 percent of Liberal Democrats reported voting for the junior governing party's members. In the 32 districts where the three parties cooperated, only half of the coalition-backed candidates won.

Some pundits attribute the apparent breakdown in LDP voter discipline to the reality that the Soka Gakkai is anathema to most mainstream Japanese. In fact, among the nation's religious organizations, the Liberal Democrats garner the most support from members of Shinto groups and other followers of Buddhism. They reject Soka Gakkai's dogma and object strongly to its controversial recruiting tactics. These groups also vigorously oppose the New Komeito's participation in the coalition, arguing that it gives Soka Gakkai a de facto seat at the governing table. That, in turn, it is argued, violates the constitution's separation of church and state. No doubt, the overwhelming majority of registered LDP voters who did not follow the party leadership's request to support a New Komeito contender viewed an opposition-backed candidate as the lesser of two evils.

The DPJ appeared to be the principal beneficiary of the coalition's problems with campaign cooperation. Following a trend apparent in the July 1998 upper house elections (see JEI Report No. 27B, July 17, 1998), Democrats scored big in urban areas, where the largest concentrations of nonaligned voters are located. In Tokyo, for example, DPJ candidates won more than half of the 25 single-seat races — in the process, unseating International Trade and Industry Minister Takashi Fukaya. Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tokuichiro Tamazawa also lost his bid to continue to represent a district that includes metropolitan areas in Iwate prefecture.

Equally disconcerting to LDP leaders, 15 former cabinet members also lost their seats, many to opposition party candidates. The LDP's Hajime Funada, a onetime director general of the Economic Planning Agency, was unseated in Tochigi prefecture by a Democrat. Other prominent Liberal Democrats who no longer will be serving in the Diet include Kazuo Aichi, once the head of the Japan Defense Agency; Hikaru Matsunaga, a former Finance minister; Eiichi Nakao, a former Construction minister; Kaoru Yosano, who had held the top post both at the Ministry of Education and at MITI; and Masayoshi Takemura, previously a chief cabinet secretary and the leader of the now-defunct New Sakigake Party.

The loss of these veteran politicians — and what that says about the electorate's flagging confidence in the LDP-led government — may come back to haunt Mr. Mori despite his anticipated reelection as prime minister. According to expert opinion, Mr. Mori may have difficulty building a triparty consensus on key policy issues. Furthermore, he no doubt will face an emboldened political opposition that will be quick to attack his government's unwillingness to tackle Japan's bulging public debt as well as problems stemming from Tokyo's foot-dragging on deregulating the economy (see following article).

Given this highly uncertain outlook, some analysts still regard Mr. Mori as a caretaker premier. They suggest that he will be reelected July 4 only to capitalize on the groundwork laid during his whirlwind nine-day tour of G-8 countries in early May (see JEI Report No. 19B, May 12, 2000) and to preside over the July summit. All bets are off after the Okinawa meetings, these observers say. Mr. Mori may be forced to call national elections before yearend. Alternatively, he could hang on until the July 2001 upper house polls. The LDP's performance in those contests would determine Mr. Mori's fate as well as the future of a Liberal Democratic-led government.

At the end of the day, the lower house elections had no big winners or losers. The DPJ did much better than anticipated but still did not emerge strong enough to topple the powers-that-be. Experts attribute this outcome to the failure of a political opposition riddled by philosophical differences and splits over policy prescriptions to present a united front (see JEI Report No. 24B, June 23, 2000). The coalition's promise of stability apparently was more appealing — or, some election analysts might argue, less frightening — to an electorate weary of LDP-dominated politics but wary of drastic change.

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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