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Why do Prime Ministers Change Before Upper House Elections?
— The political dynamics behind prime ministers changes

Airo Hino
Associate Professor, Faculty of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University

Former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama announced his resignation right before the Upper House elections. Looking back, it was a short-lived administration which lasted only eight months. Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said, “Including the next prime minister, there will have been 16 prime ministers since entering the Heisei Era 22 years ago. Although people call for change, isn't changing prime ministers this often a bit too much?” Except for Koizumi, who held office for five years and five months, each prime minister during the Heisei Era was only in power for an average of approximately one year. Even in the UK, which is said to be a model country in terms of political reform, prime ministers hold office for an average of over five years. So why do prime ministers change so frequently in Japan—after remarkably short terms, when compared with other developed countries?

The reason that prime ministers have been holding shorter terms in recent years might be because the politicians of Nagata-cho, Japan's political center, have begun responding sensitively to opinion polls, which are being carried out more frequently than in the past. It is a fact that even the media has been repeating the message that the cabinet's approval rating will be in the danger zone if it drops below than 30%. However, opinion poll reports are conducted not only in Japan but in other developed countries as well. Opinion polls are regularly conducted in the UK and the US by research and media organizations.

Public opinion poll reports have most likely encouraged the shortening of prime ministers' terms in office. However, I would like to point out that the Upper House elections set the stage for changing prime ministers. In Japan, half of the Upper House members will be re-elected once every three years. As would be expected, except for double elections, this schedule differs from that of the elections of Lower House members who hold terms of four years. This means that national elections are held at least six times in 12 years (including one double election) even if the Lower House is not dissolved.

Actually, the fact that the election schedules for both houses are not synchronized has hardly drawn any attention as something very unusual up to now even in developed nations. First of all, there is no difference in election schedules in Northern European nations that have adopted unicameral systems such as Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland. Furthermore, citizens do not directly elect lawmakers in many countries which have adopted bicameral systems. Citizens cannot vote directly for lawmakers because the UK's House of Lords is fundamentally a hereditary system, and due to the fact that the Dutch Senate, French Senate, and the German Bundesrat have each adopted an indirect system of voting handled by each state or other regional level government. The only other countries with Upper Houses where citizens can vote directly for members as in Japan are nations such as Italy, Spain, Belgium, and Switzerland. Additionally, Japan is the only one of these countries where the elections of both houses are held separately. The fact that Japan's bicameral system utilizes a unique election schedule is worthy of attention.

The separate voting days for both houses have an important implication in the political dynamics behind the change of prime ministers. Even if they temporarily earn the trust of citizens in the general elections, prime ministers will definitely be exposed to public examination—the Upper House elections that take place over their four year terms. In US mid-term elections, which are held two years after presidential elections, it is well known that there is a trend for political parties in power to be defeated. Since Japan's Upper House elections are also positioned as mid-term elections, the Hashimoto cabinet stepped down after taking the blame for the loss of the 1998 Upper House elections. This is a classic example of the ruling party losing in a mid-term election. In order for a prime minister to remain in power, they must first jump over the hurdle of the Upper House elections which is considered to be more difficult than the Lower House elections.

The party in power at the time must do everything possible in order to make it over the mid-term election hurdle. The Democratic Party of Japan's so-called replacement this time was a normal measure of the Liberal Democratic Party that was taken in the past. For example, the Takeshita Cabinet stepped down on June 3rd, 1989 amid mounting criticism of the Recruit Scandal and the introduction of the consumption tax. Similarly, the Mori Cabinet stepped down on April 26th, 2001 amid mounting criticism of Prime Minister Mori's behavior. Both resignations occurred with a focus on the upcoming Upper House elections in July of each of those years.

On the other hand, the outcomes of these resignations played out differently. According to a Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper opinion poll, approval ratings for the Takeshita Cabinet in April 1989 sank down into the single digits to 8%. Quickly taking the helm, the Uno Cabinet could not recover approval ratings after its inauguration with an approval rating of just less than 23%. As a result, the party suffered a crucial setback losing 36 seats, around half of the seats up for re-election during the Upper House election that July. In contrast, although the approval rating for the Mori Cabinet had hovered around a low of 8% in February 2001, the Koizumi Cabinet came in and took Japan by storm with its record-high approval rating of 85% in May 2001. And in the following July elections, the LDP was able to make a comeback by successfully gaining 64 seats.

What was the difference between these two incoming cabinets? The difference was how deeply they were able to instill the image into the minds of the citizens that the previous cabinet had been reformed. Sosuke Uno, who served as Foreign Minister of the Takeshita Cabinet, took over the administration because he had upcoming summits at the time. Despite aiming for legitimate politics, such as selecting cabinet ministers that were not involved with the Recruit Scandal, Uno's geisha scandal was catastrophic. This led citizens to believe that the cabinet had not been reformed. In contrast, Koizumi, who once said that he would “crush the LDP” and won the LDP's presidential election, successfully instilled the image in citizens that the LDP, as they knew it, had been reformed. With the inauguration of the new cabinet, citizens felt as if a regime change had occurred. It is safe to say that whether this pseudo regime change can play out or not will determine the outcome of the new cabinet.

I wonder to what extent the newly inaugurated Kan Cabinet will be able to allow this pseudo regime change to play out. Opinion polls after the inauguration of the new cabinet show a v-shaped turn around across the board in approval ratings. It is most likely citizens reacting to the appeal of Prime Minister Kan diluting the influence of former DPJ Secretary General Ozawa in appointing party executives and selecting cabinet ministers. The original members of the former DPJ, who have been around since its founding in 1996, are taking important posts such as secretary general and chief cabinet secretary. Since merging the Liberal Party with the DPJ in 2003, it seems like Ozawa has taken over the house. However, I wonder if Prime Minister Kan will strive to reform this image by returning to the DPJ's initial objectives. Although the LDP is ridiculed for merely promoting vice presidents to be presidents, to what extent can Prime Minister Kan differentiate himself from the Hatoyama Cabinet? I wonder if this can be predicted from the results of the upcoming Upper House elections.

Airo Hino
Associate Professor, Faculty of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University

Professor Airo Hino was born in 1974. He graduated from the School of Political Science and Economics at Waseda University—completing the Master's Program in the Graduate School of Political Science there—and then received a Ph.D in Political Science from the University of Essex in the UK. He was a research fellow in the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, received a government sponsored foreign study scholarship from the Region of Flanders, Belgium (Institute of Social and Political Opinion Research, Catholic University of Leuven), and served as a fellow at the Center of Comparative Politics, Catholic University of New Louvain [Belgium]). After holding the position of Associate Professor at Tokyo Metropolitan University, he took up his current position as Associate Professor on the Faculty of Political Science and Economics at Waseda University in 2010.

Professor Hino's major publications include the following:
Censored and hurdle regression models in TSCS data (Japanese Journal of Electoral Studies, Volume 26, No. 1, 2010)
The 2009 General Elections and New Opinion Poll Challenges [2009 Nen Sosenkyo to Atarashi Yoron Chosa no Kokoromi] (Yoron, No. 105, 2010)
Perspectives of Political Change [Seiji Henyo no Pasupekutibu], Second Edition (Kensuke Kaku, Hitoshi Maruyama, coauthors) (Minerva Shobo, 2010)
Why did the 2009 Government Change Occur?- Close Analysis of the Japanese Political Transformation Through Joint Research with Yomiuri Shimbun and Waseda University [2009 Nen, Naze Seijikokan Datta no ka- Yomiuri Waseda no Kyodo Chosa de Yomitoku Nihon Seiji no Tenkan] (Aiji Tanaka, Masaru Kohno, Airo Hino, Takeshi Iida, Yomiuri Shimbun Opinion Poll Department) (Keiso Shobo, 2009)
EU and European Integration Study [EU Oshu Togo Kenkyu] (Koji Fukuda, editor and coauthor) (Seibundo, 2009)
Democracy in Europe— [Yoroppa no Demokurashi] (Ryosuke Amiya, Takeshi Ito, Takashi Narihiro, editors and coauthors) (Nakanishiya Shupan, 2009)
Frontier of Voting Behavior Research [Tohyo Kodo Kenkyu no Furontia] (Masahiro Yamada, Takeshi Iida, Editors and Coauthors) (Ohfu, 2009)
Time-Series QCA: Studying Temporal Change through Boolean Analysis (Sociological Theory and Methods, Volume 24, No. 2, 2009)
New Parties in Government (Kris Deschouwer, Editor and Coauthor) (Routledge, 2008)
Elections: Le reflux? (Andre-Paul Frognier, Lieven De Winter, and Pierre Baudewyn, Editors and Coauthors) (De Boeck, 2007)
De Kiezer Onderzocht (Marc Swyngedouw, Jaak Billiet, and Bart Goeminne, Editors and Coauthors) (Universitaire Pers Leuven, 2007)