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Watching Japan’s Pivotal Lower House Election

Three questions to John Nilsson-Wright

Watching Japan’s Pivotal Lower House Election
 John Nilsson-Wright
Senior research fellow – the Asia-Pacific Programme at Chatham House

On October 31, Japanese citizens will head to the polls for a general election mainly opposing the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), headed by Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, who took office on October 4, 2021, and the largest opposition party, the Constitutional Democratic Party, which has formed a campaign alliance. We have asked three questions to Dr. John Nilsson-Wright, Associate Professor at Cambridge and Senior Fellow for Northeast Asia at Chatham House, to help us better understand what is at stake for the government, Japan’s foreign policy orientations and the stability of politics in the country with these elections. 

What are the most salient public policy issues of the campaign and the "distinguishing features" of each party’s political programs?

Ahead of Sunday’s election for Japan’s powerful House of Representatives, the governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) headed by Prime Minister Kishida Fumio faces an uncertain political outcome. While most political opinion polls put the LDP ahead of its nearest opposition party rival, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ), by as much as a 32% margin (with the LDP on 44% support to the CDPJ on just 12%), the election is not a foregone conclusion. Support for the government is relatively muted and the LDP has often in the past been able to capitalize on the fragmentation of the opposition, divided as it is between some five or so competing parties, and an electoral system that discourages parties from working together to challenge the government. This election is unusual, however, since the CDPJ has teamed up with the Japan Communist Party (JCP), the Democratic Party for the People, Reiwa Shinsengumi and the Social Democratic Party to field single candidates in some 213 seats of the 289 key single-member districts within the 465 seat House of Councillors. By not splitting the vote amongst a plethora of parties, the opposition hopes that it can present a credible challenge to the government, perhaps in as many as 70 or so seats, where the voting intentions of the electorate appear ambiguous. According to one recent survey, as many as 40% of the electorate are hesitant about declaring a clear preference and there are substantive reasons for voter ambivalence.
The government of Prime Minister Kishida is only recently established and his predecessor, former Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide was widely criticized for failing to develop a clear and effective response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Moreover, Kishida is yet to establish himself as a decisive leader with a clear agenda for reform and change that clearly differentiates him from both Suga, and Suga’s own predecessor, Abe Shinzo, who governed the country from 2012 until 2020. Kishida’s popularity when taking over as leader was just 56%, a relatively low figure for a new incumbent, and to some he is seen as a prisoner of the older, more conservative senior members of the party, such as Abe, former Deputy Prime Minister Aso Taro, and Amari Akira, the LDP’s new powerful secretary-general, who formerly served in a variety of influential economics-related posts.

Kishida is yet to establish himself as a decisive leader with a clear agenda for reform and change that clearly differentiates him from both Suga, and Suga’s own predecessor.

On key substantive questions, such as revitalizing a persistently sluggish economy, dealing with the country’s extraordinarily high levels of public debt, rooting out corruption from politics (an issue that undermined the standing of the Abe administration), and ensuring better coordination across cabinet, it is not clear that Kishida has convinced the electorate that his policy prescriptions are likely to be successful. And while the new Prime Minister has, in an effort to signal change, appointed a raft of younger, newer faces to Cabinet, many of whom have not had prior ministerial experience, this very innovation may complicate rather than simplify the process of ensuring a strong and effective government.

Last week’s defeat for the LDP in a by-election contest in Shizuoka prefecture for the upper house of the Parliament has prompted anxiety on the part of senior LDP officials. The latter worry that independent voters may be inclined to punish the government for its policy failures. With this in mind, the government has been careful to lower expectations, hinting at the possibility that its current hold over 276 seats in the lower house may be whittled down to just a simple majority of 233 seats. Such an outcome would not be a clear rejection of the LDP, and the party would still be able to govern with its primary coalition partner, Komeito, but it would weaken Kishida and make it difficult for him to claim a clear mandate for governing.
To limit the opportunities for the opposition, Kishida surprised many by dissolving the Diet early to facilitate a short election campaign. While this may have temporarily wrong-footed the opposition it also gave Komeito, a party with strong grass-roots support, little time to mobilize its core voters to come out in support of the government. Turn out in this election will be key, especially among young voters, who in recent years have warmed to the LDP’s strategy of developing new policies focused on educational subsidies and family-friendly initiatives that benefit a younger demographic.
Under the pressure of time, Kishida has, unsurprisingly, sought to claim the rhetorical high ground by signalling more new initiatives that he hopes will resonate with the electorate, while hoping that the diversity of policy proposals coming from the opposition side will weaken the coherence of the anti-government stance.

As is so often the case with Japanese elections, the economy remains the most critical issue.

Kishida’s innovation has been to stress the importance of redistribution as well as growth, by highlighting the importance of fairness and equality and a departure from the neo-liberal norms that until recently were seen as the hallmark of the Abe administration’s focus on the three arrows of "Abenomics", with its stress on fiscal and monetary expansion and structural reform.

As is so often the case with Japanese elections, the economy remains the most critical issue.

So far, the clearest expression of this new emphasis has been the establishment of a new council for the revitalisation of capitalism (announced this week), involving a focus on digitalization, decarbonization and economic security. At the current moment, the new council (a 15 member body, including 7 women, some of whom have an entrepreneurial background) makes sense, but doubts remain on whether this can bring about real change, or if it is simply a form of eye-catching policy window-dressing.
Substantively, Japan’s economic problems of slow growth, rising income and wealth inequality, and low productivity and stagnant wages, will require major innovative changes. Kishida has, for example, talked about raising wages for front-line service workers, such as nurses, but such reforms are partial solutions to a more complex reality. During his campaign to win the leadership of the LDP, Kishida promised the establishment of a new health crisis management agency - a change that has yet to materialise and which may therefore cost the government some credibility ahead of Sunday’s vote.
While the opposition has also rushed to claim the fairness mantle, its major policy innovation is to call for a temporary reduction in indirect taxation, a cut in the unpopular consumption tax from 10% to 5%. While this has head-line grabbing value, it may leave the opposition open to charges of economic populism and policy opportunism.

On climate change, nuclear policy and COP26, the range of policy solutions remains frustratingly underdeveloped. 

Given the scale of the core economic challenges that Japan faces, the question of how the government will fund these policies is also important especially when addressing the critical issue of public debt. On the latter point, the silence on the part of the government and the opposition is deafening and a measure of how limited the substantive debate on economic reform has been during the campaign.

Managing Covid-19 and addressing the issue of resolving the pandemic has also played a central role in the campaign. The government can take some comfort from the fact that the infection and fatality figures are improving at home. However, there have been worries about a sixth wave of infection and the country still does not have an indigenous vaccine which the government hopes to develop. By contrast the opposition has been focusing more on testing, and there is running debate about the viability of any possible future government imposed lock-downs and the privacy and constitutionality issues that this would raise. In a political environment where voters remain wary of supporting initiatives that strengthen the ability of government to impose directives, even in order to ensure public health, there are limits to what either the government or the opposition can do to provide a full spectrum solution to the pandemic.
On climate change, nuclear policy and COP26, the range of policy solutions remains frustratingly underdeveloped. The Prime Minister continues to adhere to his predecessor’s strategy of a graduated attempt to get net carbon zero by 2050, and Kishida’s decision to attend next week’s COP26 summit in Glasgow is sign of both policy continuity and Kishida’s expectation that the LDP will do well in Sunday’s election. Over the long term, there are challenges to realizing the government’s climate change targets, especially in connection with nuclear power, a particularly contentious issue. Amari, Kishida’s close political backer and the party’s new Secretary General, reportedly is pushing for a reactivation of the country’s mothballed nuclear power plants and the introduction of a new generation of nuclear reactors as a way, in part, of meeting Japan’s environmental targets. However, the public is sharply divided on the nuclear energy question, with notable majorities in favour of phasing out nuclear power, even while accepting its necessity in the short term.

Issues of trust and democratic legitimacy remain sensitive. Kishida has gone out of his way to stress the importance of listening and promoting dialogue with the public as a way of differentiating himself from his predecessors. However, it is still too early to say if the public is warming to this pitch. Since becoming LDP leader, the Prime Minister appears to have rowed back from some of his bold claims (such as term limits for party officials) and has not signalled any concrete willingness to address past corruption scandals, including those that have damaged the reputation of some of his closest political backers, most notably Mr Amari.

How could the election impact some of Japan’s foreign policy orientations?

Foreign policy remains Kishida’s more obvious policy advantage ahead of the election. As a former Foreign Minister himself, his policy knowledge works in his favour and he has made it clear that he will continue the pragmatic focus on security that was so deliberately advanced by former Prime Minister Abe.
Kishida’s stress on continuity is reflected in his decision to maintain Motegi Toshimitsu and Kishi Nobuo as foreign and defence ministers respectively, and his forceful public support for the US-Japan relationship, the QUAD process of security cooperation between Japan, India, the United States and Australia, and the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy that originated under Abe.
North Korea’s recent missile launches, timed to coincide with the start of Japan’s election campaign, has allowed Kishida, by considering new doctrinal options, including pre-emptive Japanese attacks on North Korean missile launchers, to sound forceful on defense in ways that may have strengthened his standing with an electorate increasingly worried by the security situation in Japan’s immediate neighborhood.

In the past, Kishida has been labelled as relatively dove-ish on foreign policy issues, but he has astutely adopted a more conventionally conservative position on these issues, whether in advocating more activist Japanese support (in collaboration with the US) for Taiwan’s security, a commitment to a large increase in defence spending (perhaps by as much as 2%), and by announcing a review of Japan’s national security policy, last re-examined 8 years ago, to incorporate the concept of economic security.

This is more a form of incremental continuity from the past, rather than a radical shift in foreign policy. 

This is more a form of incremental continuity from the past, rather than a radical shift in foreign policy. However, by contemplating such innovative ideas as cooperating with the US to site intermediate range missiles on Japanese territory to counter China’s security threat, (or, even more radically, potential Japanese explicit involvement in AUKUS), Kishida may find himself with future opportunities to enhance Japan’s security options while demonstrating bold and innovative leadership.
On other pressing foreign policy issues, Kishida is likely to tack in a more conventionally moderate direction, particularly when it comes to sustaining economic ties with China (critically important given Japan’s dependence on China for trade and investment opportunities). But in this respect, this is still consistent with past practice. Japan’s conservative leaders, Abe included, remain pragmatists at heart on foreign and security policy issues, even if they have become emboldened in recent years to embrace a wider range of innovative security instruments, supporting minilateral cooperation in Southeast Asia and with European countries, all within a more permissive constitutional context that legitimises collective security initiatives.
A key issue to watch in the immediate future will be how well the new government manages relations with South Korea, given the continuing persistence of sometimes intractable and highly volatile historical and national identity issues. If the Kishida administration fares poorly in the coming election and is obliged to turn to smaller, more hawkish political parties such as Nippon Ishin, for critical Diet support, there may be pressure to avoid being seen to be too accommodating towards both Seoul and Beijing.

Is Japan doomed to a return of short-term Prime Ministers governing for a year? 

Kishida’s political future will depend on how LDP and United Opposition candidates perform in some of the key marginal single-seat constituencies. A reduced majority for the government and particularly a loss of a single-party majority that requires the LDP to govern with the explicit support of minor parties, will complicate the Prime Minister’s ability to govern forcefully and promote his own agenda. This will also be difficult when there are unanswered questions about the coherence of the new cabinet (which Kishida has pledged to maintain irrespective of the outcome of the election) and the risk that structural corruption issues will persist.
In the short term, the Prime Minister’s biggest insurance policy is next year’s Upper House election and the need to maintain party unity ahead of that contest. After the disappointments of the last year under Suga, the party is not in the mood to hold another internal leadership campaign and will be keen to back the Prime Minister’s new policy agenda.
Barring a surprise landslide victory for the LDP on Sunday, Kishida will be on probation as Prime Minister for the next few months and will have to translate his innovative policy ambitions into real policy achievements. To do this he will need to compensate for his own factional weakness and prove to the electorate that he is not the prisoner of other party interests. In seeking to do this, he is likely to want to court the support of younger members of his own party while maintaining and developing some of the rhetorical innovations that distinguished his campaign for the LDP leadership and the lower house election campaign itself.


Copyright: Eugene Hoshiko / POOL / AFP

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