Japan's Kishida defies expectations by winning absolute majority

By Yasuo Takao
Adjunct Senior Research Fellow in Political Science, Curtin University

On October 31, Japan’s 465-seat House of Representatives changed shape after the newly-chosen Prime Minister Fumia Kishida had called a parliamentary election.

Early exit polls by major newspapers on election day suggested that the ruling, conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) would need to rely on its junior coalition party Komeito for a majority. They predicted that the ruling LDP would lose a net total of 30 to 50 seats.

But Kishida defied the predictions - losing a net total of only 15 seats. The LDP-Komeito coalition achieved a majority of 293 seats (LDP 261- and Komeito-32). This means that the coalition retained a lead above the "absolute stable majority" of 261 seats, which allows them to chair all standing committees as well as making up the majority of the members on those committees.

So, how can we make sense of the election results?

As the Cabinet’s approval ratings had dropped to a record-low of almost 30%, the pre-election climate provided high expectations that the LDP would be ousted. The centre-left opposition parties - the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), the Japanese Communist Party (JCP), the Democratic Party for the People (DPP), the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and Reiwa Shinsengumi - designated unified candidates in more than 210 single-member districts to avoid vote splitting among themselves.

The unified candidates faced the LDP as a single force to bring the election to a close race. Yet the largest opposition CDP lost seats despite its cooperation with the JCP; a number of high-profile CDP candidates lost in their single-member districts. The CDP took 96 seats with a net total loss of 13 seats, and the JCP won only10 seats. A surprise showing was that Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Innovation Party), that had aligned itself with the ruling LDP coalition’s policies, secured 41 seats.

The election results would seem to indicate that a majority of voters did not want a change in governing party, but did wish to constrain LDP’s possession of monopolistic power in policymaking. In this election, weak opposition, which had gone through splitting, merging and losing, once again revealed a serious impediment to developing a competitive party system with a possibility of alternation in power. Since the conservative party Nippon Ishin no Kai is unlikely to work with other opposition parties, the opposition is far from realising a new coalition government, headed by the CDP. In short, the current political situation will not take a big unexpected turn.

Now the focus is on Kishida’s leadership to seek LDP intra-party regime change. On 29 September, Kishida won the LDP presidential election and on 4 October he was elected by the Diet as Japan's new prime minister. In the LDP leadership race, younger well-spoken Taro Kono was topping opinion polls as the favored leader among the general public and the LDP’s rank-and-file members; however, the party internal politics in which Diet members hold a greater number of votes than rank-and-file members, chose Kishida as the party president in a runoff.

Meanwhile, LDP's "kingmaker" Toshihiro Nikai who had strongly supported the Abe cabinet stepped down as party Secretary-General after serving for 5 years.  A newly appointed Secretary-General Akira Amari was very close to former prime ministers Shinzo Abe and Taro Aso, but he also resigned from his post after his upset loss in his single seat district in the election. Kishida then appointed Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, who backed Kishda in the LDP leadership race, to replace Amari for establishing his power base within the LDP. The course of these events appeared to have created a greater opportunity for Kishida to reshape the LDP in his own image.

This raises the question as to whether Kishida can really exercise leadership to promote reform in ways that he himself desires ahead of next summer's Upper House election? He has signalled his intention to shift away from neoliberal economic policies and pledged to promote "a new form of capitalism" for redistributing wealth in the nation. He has just launched an advisory council to come up with strategies to redistribute wealth to the broader population. It is hard to say whether he will have enough allies and resources to implement his idea. He leads the LDP's most progressive faction, the Kochikai, while conservative nationalist factions, such as the LDP's biggest Seiwakai, still dominate the LDP.

He is known as a consensus-builder rather than a decision-maker. Some Kochikai members have already criticised him for being too inclined to the right for embracing the positions of Abe's Seiwakai.

Kishida will face the difficult challenge of avoiding conflict and pushing through negotiations to close the wage gap while the Kishida administration must provide voters with the operational plans of his policy pledge for next summer’s Upper House election. Otherwise, Kishida will be another short-term PM.

Banner image: Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. Source: Flickr/NATO


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