Elections to the upper house of the Japanese parliament take place on Sunday. The polls are crucial for the ruling Democratic Party or DPJ for the smooth enactment of its proposed legislation.
Japan's upper house
Japan's upper house has 242 seats. Half of these seats are up for grabs on Sunday. The ruling Democratic Party alone needs to win 60 seats to retain its majority in the upper house. The party has set a target of at least 54 seats. But media surveys suggest that the party might not achieve this goal. Ross Schaap, an expert on Japan at the Eurasia Group says the situation is still unclear:
"In Japan right now the number of undecided voters runs around 35 percent of the electorate and that's a huge number," says Schaap. "Last year before the lower house elections there were also a huge number of undecided voters. But those voters were then moving towards the DPJ. Right now it is unclear where these voters are going and that's why there is so much uncertainty around the outcome of the elections."
Japan has a huge public debt
Increasing sales tax
Last month popular support for the government rebounded, following the resignation of the former PM Yukio Hatoyama and the party's scandal-hit former no. 2 Ichiro Ozawa. But the ratings are sliding down again especially after the current PM Naoto Kan proposed an increase in sales tax by at least 5 percent to curb a public debt that is already nearly double the size of GDP. Kan has also warned that Japan could face a similar crisis to Greece, unless it takes dramatic steps soon.
"The choice to discuss the sales tax was probably done not very skillfully by Mr Kan," says Ross Schaap of the Eurasia Group. "He never actually said that he would move towards a rapid implementation of the increase in sales tax. But by discussing the sales tax and discussing the context around, he made a lot of people nervous within his own party and some voters."
Prime Minister Naoto Kan
Small parties could play big roles
The upper house polls are being seen as a test for the ruling party. Though PM Kan will stay in power regardless of the results, as his party dominates the lower house, bad results in the upper house would mean the DPJ will need the help of other parties, most likely smaller parties, to pass legislation smoothly. These include the market-friendly Your party, comprising defectors from the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party or LDP, the New Komeito, a Buddhist-backed party and the pro-reform New Renaissance Party.
Your Party, which according to opinion polls is likely to get at least nine seats, has so far clearly rejected an alliance with the DPJ. But analysts say a strong showing by the Democrats may prompt it to change its position.
"My expectation is that if the DPJ were to fall short, that they could work with that party and others in a more fluid way than in a formal coalition," says Schaap. "In effect the DPJ would have to form a sort of quasi minority government in the upper house to rule that chamber but would still hold control of the government with its substantial majority in the lower house."
The DPJ came to power last August, ending the Liberal Democrat's more than 50 years of nearly continuous rule. The party promised change. But former PM's Hatoyama's reluctance to move a controversial US airbase away from the Japanese southern island of Okinawa and a number of financial scandals hurt the party's image badly.
Author: Disha Uppal
Editor: Grahame Lucas