The Sept. 11 Japanese Elections: A Post-Election Analysis

By Weston S. Konishi and Teruo Iwai
September 12, 2005

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi won an overwhelming victory in Sunday’s House of Representatives (Lower House) elections. Koizumi’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) gained 47 seats for a total of 296 seats in the Lower House, while the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) fell from 175 to 113 seats. The LDP, along with ruling coalition partner New Komeito (31 seats), now has a two-thirds majority in the Lower House, or enough votes to pass a bill through both houses of the Diet.

The Sept. 11 elections focused almost entirely on Koizumi’s plan to privatize the Japanese postal system, which has financial assets of approximately 3 trillion dollars. The privatization bill passed the Lower House in July, but would not have passed the Upper House in a subsequent vote. Koizumi therefore dissolved the Lower House and called for snap elections. This essentially made the Sept. 11 elections a referendum on postal privatization.

What was at stake?

Koizumi hoped to accomplish at least two objectives by dissolving the Diet and calling for snap elections: flush out old guard LDP critics of the postal reform; and gain enough public support to pass the bill through the Upper House. Koizumi pledged to resign if he failed to win the election.

From the DPJ’s point of view, the elections presented an opportunity to build on its recent political momentum. The DPJ gained seats in the 2004 Upper House elections and the party was operating under the assumption that it had nowhere to go but up (in fact, until this election, the DPJ had never failed to add seats in the Diet). The DPJ’s “manifesto” included calls for fine-tuning the postal reform proposal, withdrawing Japanese troops from Iraq and removing U.S. bases from Okinawa. Like Koizumi, DPJ president Katsuya Okada offered to resign if his party failed to gain a majority on Sept. 11.

Political implications

Koizumi now has a broad mandate to lead Japan until his term expires in Sept. 2006 (there is speculation that Koizumi may try to extend his tenure but he insists he will step down in accordance with LDP rules). Among the 37 “rebels” within the LDP who resisted postal reform, only 17 survived the election. Former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto also retired from the Diet, effectively spelling the end of his faction and the practice of factionalism in Japanese politics.

As promised, Okada resigned the DPJ leadership and his successor is yet to be determined. The fate of the party itself is in question. Koizumi challenged Okada head on and voters responded with a resounding rejection of the DPJ and its manifesto for Japan. The country seems even farther away from obtaining a two-party system, as the DPJ for the time being is no longer a viable alternative to the LDP.

Policy implications
It is a foregone conclusion that the postal reform legislation will pass the Upper House (which is now an almost irrelevant chamber). The reforms may pave the way for greater deregulation and privatization across a broad range of industries in Japan.

Given Koizumi’s fixation on postal reform during the campaign, it is unclear at this point what other policies he will prioritize in his remaining year in office. Popular issues include social security reform to prepare for Japan’ rapidly aging society and education reform.

Many foreign policy initiatives were in a holding pattern pending the elections. In particular, bilateral negotiations over U.S. force realignments in Japan seemed to be taking a back seat to postal privatization. Now that he has the political capital, Koizumi has the ability to focus attention on the realignment initiative and help persuade local authorities to accept bilateral proposals.

On the campaign trail Koizumi suggested that he would improve ties with China and Korea. It is unclear how the prime minister will do so, especially since he is likely to visit Yasukuni Shrine in December. The shrine honors Japanese Class-A war criminals and is the source of diplomatic tension between Japan and the mainland. Japan and China are also posturing over disputed natural gas fields in the East China Sea.

The bottom line
Koizumi has fundamentally altered the political landscape in Tokyo by marginalizing the old guard in his party as well as the main opposition force. The most immediate short-term impact will be the privatization of the postal system. However, we are unlikely to see a Koizumi administration that is noticeably different from what it has been for the past four years. The prime minister will continue to be a strong supporter of the U.S. alliance but he is unlikely to use his remaining time in office to achieve something in the magnitude of revising the Constitution or increasing defense spending.

The long-term impact of these elections (what may be considered Koizumi’s legacy) is likely to be subtle but profound. Koizumi has done the unthinkable in the context of Japanese politics—in his own words he has “destroyed the old LDP.” Not only are the LDP and its traditional powerbase reconfigured, but the opposition is arguably weaker (both politically and ideologically) than anytime in postwar history. What is left of the LDP is now a party of younger, reform-minded, and occasionally hawkish politicians. How effective they are at running the country remains to be seen, particularly after Koizumi leaves office. If the opposition wants to reestablish its strength it will have to prove to Japanese voters that its policies offer a more progressive and compelling alternative.

Weston Konishi is program director and Teruo Iwai is program assistant at the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation. The views expressed in this report are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Mansfield Foundation.

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