Japan's opposition threatens government's majority in the wake of COVID-19

By Akihiro Ogawa
Professor of Japanese Studies, Asia Institute, University of Melbourne

After the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games end in September 2021, the general election must occur before House of Representatives members reach the end of their term, which is October 21.

Candidates are vying for 289 seats in single-seat constituencies and 176 proportional representation seats in the lower chamber of the Diet.

As grassroot frustrations with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s inability to manage the COVID-19 pandemic have increased, the coming election will likely generate new politics with a vision of the new post-pandemic society.

People are also frustrated with Prime Minister Suga’s leadership regarding the hosting of the Olympics and Paralympics, as the COVID-19 situation has not yet sufficiently improved. In fact, many citizens are against hosting these events and expect Prime Minister Suga to call them off.

Under these circumstances, the opposition parties will likely garner more attention.

Yoshihide Suga stands at a podium next to the Japanese flag
The approval rate for Prime Minister Suga’s Cabinet stood at 31% in May. Pic: Government of Japan

A united front

In this election, I examine whether the opposition parties’ coalition will be successful. A civil society group called the Civil Alliance for Peace and Constitutionalism, or Shimin Rengō,is the key to the development of this coalition as it plays a significant role in coordinating a united front against the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the Komeito camp.

Established in December 2015, the Civil Alliance for Peace and Constitutionalism is a legacy of Japanese youths’ activism in the summer of 2015 against “war legislation.” Then-prime minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet changed the interpretation of Japan’s pacifism as defined under Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution by allowing the exercise of the right to collective self-defence.

A series of protest actions were organized by SEALDs (Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy), a group of young university students from all over the country. In September 2016, they disbanded the group but continued their efforts in real politics in a more effective manner, namely, as former activists, they helped form a united front by lobbying opposition party leaders in cooperation with concerned scholars and mothers against war.

People hold placards while listening to speakers at a demonstration
Pic: Facebook/SEALDs Eng

On June 15, 2021, the Civil Alliance for Peace and Constitutionalism announced on its website that the leaders of six opposition groups in the Diet had agreed to field joint candidates in constituencies where only one seat would be contested in the upcoming House of Representatives election.

The opposition groups include the Constitutional Democratic Party, the Democratic Party for the People, the Japanese Communist Party, the Social Democratic Party, Okinawa no Kaze (Okinawa’s wind), and Hekisuikai, each of which is a parliamentary alliance in the House of Councillors.

In recent elections, the Civil Alliance for Peace and Constitutionalism has been fielding joint candidates, not only in the national election but also at the prefectural and municipal levels. In the House of Councillors election in July 2016,the Civil Alliance for Peace and Constitutionalism won 11 out of 32 single-seat constituencies by fielding candidates as a result of coordination. Meanwhile, in proportional representation, it won 44 seats.

Most recently, in April 2021, the ruling LDP lost all three seats in the Japanese parliamentary election. Three candidates backed by the Civil Alliance for Peace and Constitutionalism won a re-held House of Councillors election in the Hiroshima constituency, an upper house by-election in the Nagano constituency, and a House of Representatives by-election for the No. 2 single-seat district in Hokkaido.

COVID hurts Suga’s popularity

The results of the first national elections since Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga took office in September 2020 reflected voters’ discontent with the government’s COVID-19 response, as well as reactions to the bribery scandals that brought about two of the elections.

The approval rate for Prime Minister Suga’s Cabinet stood at 31% in May, the lowest level since it was formed in September.  Historically in Japan, when the approval rating of the cabinet falls below 30%, the prime minister is replaced.

In the previous lower house election in October 2017 (voting rate: 53.68%), the combined number of votes for the LDP and Komeito was 25,533,429, and 26,107,819 for the four opposition parties. These numbers alone indicate that it is highly possible that united front candidates will collect enough votes for success and will take the seats currently occupied by LDP or Komeito members.

The higher the voter turnout, the greater the opportunity for united front candidates. We must pay attention to this new trend in Japanese politics.

Banner image: Shinagawa Station in Tokyo full of commuters despite the pandemic. Source: Sanshiro Kubota/Flickr

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