5 key takeaways from the general election in Japan

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida defied expectations and won an important electoral mandate on October 31 in the general elections for the House of Representatives. Although his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was bracing for losses that could weaken its control over the 465-seat lower house of the National Diet, the party only managed to lose 15 seats and came out of the elections with a majority of 261 seats – 293 when combined with the 32 seats of its junior coalition partner Komeito. At the same time, the center-left Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP) saw its total drop from 13 seats to 96, despite high expectations about its performance.

Although the overall distribution of seats is not entirely different from what it has been over the past decade, the general elections in Japan nonetheless have important implications for the country’s short-term political future, including including the five takeaways detailed in this article.

1. The election reduced fears of a return to a revolving-door government

The US government in particular has expressed dismay during the 2006-2012 period when Japan changed prime ministers every year, as this hampered efforts to strengthen bilateral cooperation. The exit of former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga after only a year in office rekindled those fears, which were little allayed when Kishida’s initial approval ratings were low. However, after overcoming the first major hurdle his government faces, Kishida may be able to complete a three-year term as the head of the LDP and rule into the 2020s. If he manages to retain control of it. the ruling coalition over the Diet’s upper house in July 2022 – more likely now after the CDP’s poor performance on Sunday – he will have up to three years before he has to face the electorate again. However, he could call another general election anytime before the end of the House’s four-year term – a so-called snap election – which would both increase Kishida’s chances of remaining in power and give him more. freedom to pursue his political program. .

2. The election result will give Kishida the public support he did not get when he first took office.

When Kishida won the race to succeed Suga as PLD leader and prime minister, the public reaction was lukewarm. His popularity with the general public lagged far behind that of Taro Kono, the finalist in the leadership race, and his cabinet received only a modest increase in approval ratings from outgoing cabinet Suga. The public clearly doubted that Kishida – who leads what has always been the most liberal faction of the PLD but has made a number of concessions to the conservatives of the PLD to win the leadership campaign – would be able to chart his own course in as Prime Minister. But, after exceeding expectations and maintaining the power of the ruling coalition with a healthy majority, Kishida has shown that he can be an effective standard-bearer for the party, which in turn could give him more power to set the direction of government independently of former Prime Minister Shinzo. Abe and the right wing of the LDP.

Indeed, he was given an unexpected opportunity to take some distance from Abe when Akira Amari became the first secretary general of the incumbent PLD, the party’s number two who is responsible for overseeing the party’s operations, performing duties that include , but not limited to, distributing campaign funds, nominating candidates and disciplining members — to lose his constituency in a general election. Kishida quickly replaced Amari with Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi. While Amari is closely linked to Abe as well as former Finance Minister and Prime Minister Taro Aso, Motegi leads his own faction, was a key supporter of Kishida’s leadership bid, and may have his own ambitions of direction. He might be a more reliable lieutenant for Kishida when it comes to exerting control over the ruling party.

3. The general elections revealed that the electorate continues to prefer stability over change

During Abe’s historically long tenure, the public often pointed out that while they were not entirely satisfied with Abe’s political priorities and worried about allegations of influence peddling, voters saw no best alternative to lead Japan, especially in the face of the worsening regional security environment. and the ongoing economic struggles. The most recent election results suggest Kishida could benefit from the same mood. There is perhaps no better indicator of the electorate’s preference for stability than a consistently low voter turnout. After the turnout fell to an all-time high of 59.3% in the 2012 general election that brought Abe and the PLD back to power, it fell to a new low of 52.7% in 2014 and n Voter turnout rose only one point in 2017. Turnout rose slightly to 55.93 percent, but it is still the third-lowest national turnout and well below historical standards. Despite two changes of prime minister and widespread dissatisfaction with the way the LDP-led government handled the COVID-19 pandemic, voters, especially independents, ultimately showed little interest in voting against the coalition in power.

4. The “one strong, many weak” party system will continue

With the departure of CDP leader Yukio Edano, who announced his resignation after the elections, the main opposition party is entering a period of introspection. The party will likely debate whether to pursue a controversial alliance with the Communist Party of Japan, which has reduced competition between opposition candidates but may also have alienated other CDP constituencies, notably unions. Meanwhile, although the Osaka-based Japan Innovation Party – commonly known as Ishin – has quadrupled its total seats to 41, its role in the political system is ambiguous. Ishin, for example, ruled out a coalition with the LDP and cooperation with the alliance led by the CDP. As an idiosyncratic regional populist party whose positions overlap with those of the PLD on several key issues, for example national security and the need to revise the Japanese constitution, Ishin is unlikely to become a serious alternative to the PLD nationally. The absence of a second major party capable of winning the confidence of voters could put a floor under Kishida’s support.

5. Kishida still faces a difficult political environment that could undermine his tenure as Prime Minister

While the general election results suggest that the political stability of the Abe years will continue, Kishida will likely face a myriad of challenges. The defense hawks of the PLD want to increase national defense spending beyond about 1% of the gross domestic product which they have supported for years; enable the Japanese self-defense forces to strike targets in neighboring countries and acquire the necessary capabilities to accomplish this mission; and introduce new measures to confront China on human rights and strengthen support for Taiwan. These policies could meet resistance from Komeito – the LDP coalition partner who is skeptical of Japan adopting a broader security posture and whose leadership prioritizes social spending over social spending. defense spending – as well as the general public and a business community that is still committed to a “mutually beneficial” economic relationship with China.

Meanwhile, as Kishida signals that he wants to spend billions of yen on stimulus measures to help Japan recover from the “corona shock,” a debate looms within the ruling parties over whether the government must move from fiscal stimulus to fiscal consolidation. . An inflammatory essay published in October by the top finance ministry official accused all political parties of acting as if the Japanese government had “unlimited money,” and the essay’s mixed reception suggests it There remain substantial divisions over whether or not to spend additional deficit spending, especially as the aging population puts more strain on the country’s social safety net.

Finally, although Kishida has said he wants to build a “new Japanese capitalism” that prioritizes redistribution as well as growth – and is open to new taxes on the rich and businesses to finance it – this program has already met resistance within of the PLD. and Japanese companies. If the prime minister is determined to make his new capitalism agenda a legacy, it could lead to conflicts within the ruling party that would weaken his tenure.

Conclusion

Ultimately, the results of the general election in Japan indicate that the new prime minister and his ruling coalition continue to benefit from a widespread desire for political stability. This stability, however, does not guarantee that Kishida will be able to navigate the competing visions of Japan’s future that exist even within the ranks of the ruling parties. The new prime minister may have been given a mandate to tackle some of Japan’s most difficult problems, but he still has his work cut out for him.

Tobias Harris is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where he oversees the work of the National Security and International Policy Team on Asia.

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