Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida defied expectations and won a significant electoral mandate on October 31 in the general election for the House of Representatives. Although his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was bracing for losses that could weaken its control of the 465-seat lower house of the National Diet, the party managed to lose only 15 seats and emerged from the election with a 261-seat majority—293 when combined with its junior coalition partner Komeito’s 32 seats. At the same time, the center-left Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP) saw its total fall by 13 seats to 96, despite high expectations for its performance.
While the overall distribution of seats is not altogether different from what it has been for the past decade, Japan’s general election nevertheless has significant implications for the country’s near-term political future, including the five takeaways detailed in this article.
1. The election reduced fears of a return to a revolving-door premiership
The U.S. government in particular expressed dismay during the 2006–2012 period when Japan changed prime ministers every year, as this hindered efforts to strengthen bilateral cooperation. Former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s exit after only one year in the premiership rekindled these fears, which were little assuaged when Kishida’s initial approval ratings were weak. However, having cleared the first major hurdle facing his government, Kishida could be positioned to complete a three-year term as the LDP’s leader and govern well into the 2020s. If he can retain the ruling coalition’s control of the Diet’s upper chamber in July 2022—more likely now after the CDP’s poor performance on Sunday—he will have up to three years before having to face the electorate again. However, he could call another general election any time before the House of Representatives’ four-year term is up—a so-called snap election—that would both increase Kishida’s chances of remaining in office and give him more freedom to pursue his policy agenda.
2. The outcome of the election will give Kishida the public support he did not get when he first took office
When Kishida won the race to succeed Suga as leader of the LDP and prime minister, the public response was tepid. His popularity with the general public lagged far behind that of Taro Kono, the runner-up in the leadership contest, and his Cabinet enjoyed only a modest bump in approval ratings from the outgoing Suga Cabinet. The public clearly doubted whether Kishida—who leads what has historically been the LDP’s most liberal faction but made a number of concessions to the LDP’s conservatives to win the leadership campaign—would be able to chart his own course as prime minister. But, having exceeded expectations and maintained the ruling coalition’s power with a healthy majority, Kishida showed that he can be an effective standard-bearer for the party, which could in turn give him more power to set the government’s direction independent of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the LDP’s right wing.
Indeed, he received an unexpected opportunity to create some distance from Abe when Akira Amari became the first sitting LDP secretary-general—the party’s second-in-command who is responsible for overseeing the party’s operations, performing functions that include but are 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 Affairs Minister Toshimitsu Motegi. Whereas Amari is closely linked to Abe as well as to former Finance Minister and Prime Minister Taro Aso, Motegi leads his own faction, was a critical supporter of Kishida’s leadership bid, and may have leadership ambitions of his own. He could be a more reliable lieutenant for Kishida when it comes to exercising control of the ruling party.
3. The general election revealed that the electorate continues to prefer stability to change
Despite two changes of prime minister and widespread dissatisfaction over how the LDP-led government has handled the COVID-19 pandemic, voters, particularly independents, ultimately showed little interest in turning out to vote against the ruling coalition.
During Abe’s historically long tenure, the public often signaled that while it was not entirely satisfied with Abe’s policy priorities and was concerned about allegations of influence peddling, voters also saw no better alternative to lead Japan, particularly in the face of a worsening regional security environment and ongoing economic struggles. The most recent election results suggest that Kishida may benefit from the same mood. There may be no better indicator of the electorate’s preference for stability than persistently low electoral turnout. After turnout fell to a record low of 59.3 percent in the 2012 general election that ushered Abe and the LDP back into power, it plummeted to a new low of 52.7 percent in 2014 and rose by only a point in 2017. In the most recent general election, turnout rose slightly to 55.93 percent, but this is still the third-lowest national turnout rate and well below historic norms. Despite two changes of prime minister and widespread dissatisfaction over how the LDP-led government has handled the COVID-19 pandemic, voters, particularly independents, ultimately showed little interest in turning out to vote against the ruling coalition.
4. The ‘one strong, many weak’ party system will endure
With the exit of CDP leader Yukio Edano, who announced his resignation after the election, the leading opposition party enters a period of soul-searching. The party will likely debate whether to continue a controversial alliance with the Japanese Communist Party, which reduced competition between opposition candidates but also may have alienated other CDP constituencies, most notably organized labor. Meanwhile, although the Osaka-based Japan Innovation Party—commonly known as Ishin—quadrupled its seat total to 41, its role in the political system is ambiguous. Ishin has, for example, ruled out a coalition with the LDP and cooperation with the CDP-led alliance. As an idiosyncratic populist regional party whose positions overlap with the LDP on several key issues—for example, national security and the need to revise the Japanese Constitution—Ishin is unlikely to emerge as a serious alternative to the LDP nationwide. The absence of a second major party capable of winning voter trust could put a floor beneath Kishida’s support.
5. Kishida still faces a challenging policy environment that could undermine his premiership
While the results of the general election suggest that the political stability of the Abe years will continue, Kishida will likely encounter myriad challenges. The LDP’s defense hawks want to raise national defense spending beyond the roughly 1 percent of gross domestic product it has sustained for years; permit Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to strike targets in neighboring countries and acquire the capabilities to perform this mission; and introduce new measures to confront China on human rights and bolster support for Taiwan. These policies could face resistance from Komeito—the LDP’s coalition partner that is skeptical of Japan assuming a more expansive security posture and whose leadership prioritizes social spending over defense spending—as well as from 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 trillions of yen on stimulus to help Japan recover from the “corona shock,” there is a debate looming within the ruling parties over whether the government needs to shift its focus from fiscal stimulus to fiscal consolidation. An inflammatory essay published in October by the Finance Ministry’s top bureaucrat accused all political parties of acting as if the Japanese government had “unlimited cash,” and the essay’s mixed reception suggests that there remain substantial divisions over the advisability of additional deficit spending, particularly as the aging population places a greater burden on the country’s social safety net.
Finally, although Kishida has said that he wants to build a “new Japanese capitalism” that prioritizes redistribution as well as growth—and is open to new taxes on the wealthy and corporations to finance it—this agenda has already encountered resistance from within the LDP and corporate Japan. If the prime minister is determined to make his new capitalism agenda a legacy issue, it could lead to conflict within the ruling party that weakens his premiership.
Ultimately, the results of Japan’s general election 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 for 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 toughest problems, but he still has his work cut out for him.