Elections in the upper House of Councilors occur every three years when half the members have to stand for election. The 1992 election for the upper house had the potential for dramatic change, but it did not happen.
In the previous election, the ruling Liberal-Democratic Party narrowly lost its majority in this House. This forced it to make some compromises in order to get its policies through the Diet, because the upper House can reject bills passed by the lower House of Representatives (if the lower House passes the bill a second time by two-thirds majority, the bill becomes law over the objection of the upper House). In the run-up to the election, the LDP experienced difficulty because of scandals and a fight over the issue of sending Japanese troops abroad in support of United Nations peace-keeping efforts.
Money scandals have frequently plagued the LDP, but from 1989 to 1992, there were a series of scandals involving larger amounts of money than usual. Some of the highest members of the party were implicated, leading to widespread criticism of the party and a suspicion that the voters might cast their ballots against the party at an early opportunity. In addition, in 1989, there was a sexual scandal which forced Prime Minister Uno Sosuke of the LDP to resign.
The debate over the Peace Keeping Operations bill was vicious in early 1992. Not since a long crisis in 1959-60 had opponents of the LDP consistently resorted to boycotts of parliamentary proceedings. The issue related in part to criticism from the outside world of Japan’s reaction to the Gulf War of 1990-91; Japan was said to have paid its way through the situation, leaving the stress of diplomacy and the bloodshed to other countries.
It also related to a long-standing debate within Japan centering on Article 9 of the constitution which states that `the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes’. The next sentence adds that `land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.’ Despite these phrases, Japan has had Land, Air and Maritime Self Defense Forces which the Supreme Court has refused to declare unconstitutional on the grounds that they are for self-defense, not war.
Into this ambiguous situation, the government introduced a bill authorizing participation in UN peace-keeping in order to placate international criticism of Japan (in the West, in particular) as well as to give Japan an international role commensurate with its economic power, especially in the context of the collapse of communism outside of the People’s Republic of China. Eventually, the LDP forced approval of the bill authorizing a peace keeping role for the Self-Defense Forces provided that there be no chance of fighting, but only at the cost of ramming the bill through the Diet in the face of an opposition boycott. This was an action which was forbidden by unspoken agreement between the ruling party and the opposition since 1960.
The situation might have precipitated a major confrontation if there had been active popular support for the opposition’s position. The election of 1992 had the potential for a hot debate, followed by a change of government.
It did not occur. The ruling party returned a comfortable majority in the seats which were contested (half the Upper House) and the campaign utterly failed to excite popular opinion.
By 1993, concern over scandals and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s inability to carry through on promises to make reforms in the electoral system severely discredited the party. Numerous younger members of the party defected, forcing an election for the lower House of Representatives. The defectors formed new parties, contributing to the failure of the LDP. After the election, a coalition government was formed by seven parties, including the Japan Socialist Party, the Komeito (Clean Government Party, closely associated with the Soka Gakkai) and the new parties. The main promise of the parties was to implement electoral reforms which would establish a large number of single-member constituencies while leaving a smaller number of representatives to be elected from multi-member constituencies as in the past. The common assumption was that such a reform would weaken the LDP further.
While the 1993 election broke the dominance of the LDP, the stability of the seven-party coalition remained questionable. Many observers noted that although the LDP lost power, the number of conservative representatives returned by all the parties, including the new parties, was higher than in any election since 1955 when the LDP was formed. The number of leftist members elected was, accordingly, far fewer than at any time in the previous forty years. Should the coalition split along left-right lines, therefore, a new coalition of conservative parties even stronger than the LDP before the 1993 election could emerge, bringing into question the degree of change that the 1993 election represented.