September 28, 2017 12:14 pm JST  (Updated October 22, 2017 11:25 pm JST)

Seven things to know about Japan's lower house elections

Two new political parties emerge as 1,180 candidates vie for 465 seats

MITSURU OBE, Nikkei staff writer, and KAZUKI KAGAYA, Nikkei senior staff writer

TOKYO -- Japanese voters cast their ballots on Oct. 22 in an election that saw 1,180 candidates fighting for 465 lower house seats. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe dissolved the lower house on Sept. 28. Here is a brief explanation of how parliamentary elections work in Japan.

Why do these elections matter?

There is a chance they will lead to a change of government, or to Abe's first major setback since he came to power five years ago. Giving rise to this possibility is Yuriko Koike, the popular governor of Tokyo, who forayed into national politics on Sept. 25 by forming the Party of Hope.

Which parties are in the race?

The arrival of the Party of Hope has triggered a realignment that has left political parties in one of three major blocs. The first is the ruling coalition between Abe's Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito, a party associated with a lay Buddhist group.

The second bloc has formed around the Party of Hope, composed of conservative-minded yet reform-oriented lawmakers. It has absorbed much of the Democratic Party, which until recently was the main opposition, and is also working with the Japan Restoration Party, a western Japan-based libertarian group.

The third is an alliance between a liberal offshoot of the Democratic Party that calls itself the Constitutional Democratic Party as well as the Social Democratic Party and the Communist Party.

What are the main issues?

Like in all recent elections, this time out the economy is the main issue.

Consumption tax: the ruling camp promises to raise the consumption tax rate to 10 percent from 8 percent in October 2019. Abe has twice postponed the planned hike, in 2015 and this year, but pledges to impose it two years from now. The ruling coalition says it will use revenue from the tax increase to fund various welfare programs, like making preschool free for all.

The Party of Hope calls for freezing the hike until the economic recovery gains solid footing. The Constitutional Democratic Party, the Social Democrats and the Communists are against the consumption tax increase.

Nuclear power: The LDP wants to bring more reactors back on line. Japan shut down all of its reactors after the three meltdowns in Fukushima Prefecture in 2011. The Party of Hope calls for eliminating nuclear power by 2030 and for raising the share of renewable energy to 30% of all power generated in the country. The Constitutional Democratic Party says it will endeavor to realize the elimination of nuclear power as soon as possible.

Collective self-defense: The ruling camp in 2015 passed legislation to pave the way for Japan to fight for its allies even if Japan itself is not under attack, invoking the right to collective self-defense. The legislation is supported by the Party of Hope but opposed by the Constitutional Democratic Party, the Social Democrats and the Communists, which argue the legislation goes against the nation's pacifist constitution.

Constitution: The LDP is proposing to amend the constitution's Article 9, which forbids Japan from possessing armed forces, and to recognize the Self-Defense Forces. The Party of Hope is advocating an amendment for a one-chamber parliament. The Constitutional Democratic Party does not preclude discussions of the constitution. The Social Democrats and the Communists want to keep intact the U.S.-drafted constitution.

What would be considered a win for the ruling coalition?

At stake are 465 seats in the lower house. Abe has set a goal of winning a simple majority -- 233 seats between the two coalition parties.

Until now, however, the LDP has maintained a large majority on its own, with 287 seats. Factor in the 35 seats held by its junior partner, Komeito, and the ruling bloc has wielded a two-thirds majority.

If the LDP fails to retain its own majority in the elections and only manages to hang on with Komeito's support, there would likely be calls for Abe to step down as prime minister -- even from within his own party.

How will these elections be fought?

The number of seats in the lower house was cut from 475 to 465 last year to reduce representational disparities between urban and rural districts. Of these seats, 289 are allocated to single-seat constituencies, while the remaining 176 are filled through regional proportional representation. Citizens vote twice: once for a candidate in their local district and once for a party under the proportional representation system.

Candidates can run on the proportional ballot and for a constituency seat. Those who fail to win a district seat can still make it into parliament if their party wins the proportional balloting.

How will the new prime minister be elected and the next government formed?

Japan's system of government is modeled on the British parliamentary system: The prime minister is elected by the parliament, with the cabinet chosen by the prime minister.

The prime minister is elected by a simple majority vote of the two houses of the Diet. If the winner differs between houses, the lower house's choice prevails. Usually, the head of the political party with the largest number of seats in the lower house becomes prime minister, but there have been exceptions.

To be eligible for the job, one must be a member of the Diet. Thus, unlike in the U.S., Japan cannot see a political outsider like Donald Trump quickly rise to power.

Could Koike become Japan's next leader?

A well-known former news presenter and one of the most recognizable political figures in Japan, Koike could mount a viable challenge to Abe. But she cannot become prime minister unless she is elected to parliament, where she previously served from 1992 to 2016. She has decided not to run this time.

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