Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ultra-right Liberal Democratic Party suffered a devastating loss in the elections to Japan’s House of Councilors July 29, becoming a minority party in the process.

The shift was stunning. The LDP and allied New Komei Party needed to win 64 seats in the upper house to maintain their majority. Instead, of the 121 seats up for grabs, the LDP won only 37, resulting in a net loss of 27 seats.

As a result, the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan, a moderately liberal party, moved into the No. 1 position in the upper house. For the moment, the LDP retains control of the lower house.

The LDP is not used to being in the minority, as it has essentially been Japan’s ruling party since the 1950s. It had been seen as invincible after a wave of successes, most recently a landslide 2005 victory.

In the upper house, there are two types of seats: those elected through a system of proportional representation, and those elected by districts, as in the U.S. Congress. Many of the seats lost were single seats in rural districts where the LDP has traditionally held a power base. Rural voters, according to various news reports, have been roiled by LDP-backed “free trade” deals.

The Abe government has come under increasing scrutiny due to a number of scandals. Within the past year, scandals involving misuse of public funds forced one minister to step down and drove the agricultural minister to commit suicide. In addition, programs pushed by the LDP have increasingly alienated it from the people. A plan to privatize the Japanese post office has drawn particular ire.

“Clearly, the voters have judged that the political framework of the LDP-Komei coalition never provides the public with a promising future,” the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) said in a statement. “This is not just a reflection of failures or misconduct by individual cabinet members, including the prime minister, and the mismanaging of the pension accounts. Public criticism was directed at the 10 months of the Abe Cabinet policies that have exacerbated poverty and widened the gap between poor and rich in the country while following a foreign policy line that insists that Japan’s past war of aggression was a just war.”

The LDP’s attitude on Japan’s role in World War II — including denial of the sex slavery that Japan’s army inflicted on tens of thousands of women and promotion of school textbooks whitewashing Japan’s role in the war, as and well as an ambivalent attitude toward the Yasukuni shrine, which honors war criminals — have put Abe at odds with large sections of the Japanese population.

“The debacle of the Abe Cabinet,” the JCP statement continued, “which calls for constitutional revision on top of its election platform, has dealt a heavy blow to the rightist pro-Yasukuni forces advocating Japan’s departure from [the] postwar regime.”

The Abe government wants to revise Article 9 of the Japanese constitution. This is the article that ensures that Japan has no offensive army, only a self-defense force. The ultra-right has been urging that the constitution be changed to allow Japan to develop a military with offensive capabilities, much to the chagrin of the peace movement and other Asian states.

There is rising public sentiment that Abe should resign and dissolve the lower house of Parliament, which actually elects the prime minister. Abe has refused to do so.

According to the JCP, the election could mark the beginning of “a new era in which a new political process is starting,” but also noted “this does not mean that the public has made clear its stance on alternative politics to the existing politics.” Thus, the JCP still sees struggle ahead.

The JCP itself won three seats in the proportional representation section, and increased its vote total in many areas, including Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. Altogether, the JCP received 4.4 million votes, or more than 7 percent of all votes cast.

dmargolis @pww.org