Japan Upper House election

12 July 2010

Half of the Upper House seats were contested yesterday (Sunday, 11 July 2010), and the ruling coalition, composed mainly of the Democratic Party of Japan, has lost its majority. The government still has a comfortable majority in the Lower House, however it will make passing legislation and governing more difficult, as the Upper House can be used by the opposition to stall and reject legislation.

Before discussing the possible implications of the results, I would like to state my views on the bicameral parliament in Japan. To put it simply, I believe it doesn’t work, and a fundamental reform is required. The executive relies on the confidence of the parliament, and that means that the government normally needs to command a majority in the parliament. There is nothing wrong with that. However, it makes rather difficult for the government, because it needs to command a majority in both chambers. The Japanese Upper House is more or less a copy of the Lower House, therefore it does not serve as a place of legislative scrutiny above the party political divisions, but somewhere to frustrate the government, if the opposition parties command a majority. While the Lower House has stronger powers, it’s not as strong as the House of Commons vis-à-vis the House of Lords in the UK, therefore an opposition majority in the Upper House can lead to stalemate. Japan is not a federal state, therefore the relationship between the two chambers is not comparable to that between the Bundestag and the Bundesrat in Germany.

The results were encouraging for the Liberal Democrats, whose fortunes have been on the up, ever since the former prime minister, Mr Hatoyama, dithered on the issue of the US military bases in Japan, however the party still faces an uphill struggle if it were to regain its position as the natural party of government. While the opposition to the coalition ‘won’, the results do not point to a majority for a right-of-the-centre / conservative coalition in the Upper House. Arithmetically such a coalition is possible, however it will require everyone except the coalition parties, the Social Democrats and the Communists to join the Liberal Democrats, and there is probably too much bad blood between the various conservative parties for such a group to work.

Mr Kan, the prime minister, has ruled out resignation, but it’s going to be tough to govern without a majority in the Upper House, and his government will require the support of other parties to pass legislation. The only stable solution is either a grand coalition with the Liberal Demoracts, or to form a coalition with the Komei party, both of which seem unlikely at this moment. More than before, Japan needs a government that can deal with many pressing economic and social problems, but this election result made it that much more difficult.