Japan’s ruling conservative party defied expectations in Sunday’s general election, with a comfortable victory that will boost the prime minister, Fumio Kishida, as he attempts to steer the economy out of the coronavirus pandemic.
Kishida’s Liberal Democratic party secured 261 seats in the 465-member lower house – the more powerful of Japan’s two-chamber Diet – slightly down on its pre-election 276 seats.
The party and its junior coalition partner, Komeito, together won 293 seats, more than the 261 required for an “absolute stable majority” that gives them command of parliamentary committees, making it easier to pass bills.
Kishida said his administration would attempt to compile an extra budget this year that would support for people hit by the pandemic, including those who lost their jobs and students struggling to pay tuition fees.
“The lower house election is about choosing a leadership,” Kishida told public broadcaster NHK. “With the ruling coalition certain to keep its majority, I believe we received a mandate from the voters.”
The Constitutional Democratic party of Japan, the biggest opposition group, lost more than a dozen seats. But the rightwing populist Japan Innovation party, whose base is in the western city of Osaka, quadrupled its presence to 41 seats to become the third-biggest party in the chamber.
Some exit polls had predicted an uncomfortably close night for Kishida and the LDP, which has governed Japan almost without interruption since the mid-1950s and last lost a lower house election in 2009.
Kishida, who became prime minister last month after his predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, decided not to run in the LDP leadership race, said he would prepare Japan’s health service for a possible wave of winter Covid-19 cases and tackle income inequality as he attempts to revive the pandemic-hit economy with a multi-trillion yen stimulus package.
“The overall trend is in favour of stability. The LDP cleared the hurdles it absolutely had to,” said Tobias Harris, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “We’ll see a lot of stimulus.”
Kishida, 64, had hoped that his focus on a vaguely defined “new capitalism” that would redistribute wealth to Japan’s struggling middle classes would help his party retain its healthy majority in parliament.
He had also promised a more responsive leadership amid criticism that Shinzo Abe, who stepped down last year, and his short-lived successor, Suga, had lost touch with voters, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic.
Voter apathy was reflected in the turnout, which at just under 56% was the third lowest since the end of the war.
Unusually for an incoming leader, Kishida did not enjoy a political honeymoon, with approval ratings about 50%, the lowest in two decades for a new administration in Japan.
Several opposition parties had attempted to capitalise on unusually close cooperation, with five of them, including the communists, agreeing before the campaign not to compete against each other in marginal constituencies in an attempt to consolidate the anti-LDP vote.
They called for more help for low-income families, as well as to allow married couples to use separate surnames and for the legalisation of same-sex marriage – two changes Kishida has said he opposes.
“I focused on the candidates’ policies on same-sex marriage and LGBT issues. I have many friends in gay or lesbian couples. I hope public understanding on these issues will deepen,” said Eko Nagasaki, an 18-year-old woman who voted for the first time.
Several polls had indicated that Kishida, a softly spoke centrist whose rise had been met with indifference by many voters, lacked the profile to lead the LDP to a convincing victory. Last month he defeated three rivals to become party president – effectively securing him the premiership – including Taro Kono, a reformist whose popularity among voters was not shared by many party MPs.
Kishida, who had delayed a decision on his attendance at Cop26 summit until the election results were in, will now come under pressure to offer more details of his plans for the world’s third-biggest economy, as well as ensure that Japan’s medical infrastructure is better able to cope with a possible rise in Covid-19 cases.
On the foreign policy front, he backs party plans to dramatically raise defence spending in response to an increasingly uncertain security environment in north-east Asia.
The LDP included in its election platform a pledge to double defence spending to 2% of GDP, citing rising tensions between China and Taiwan and North Korea’s resumption of ballistic missile tests.
Japan, whose postwar “pacifist” constitution forbids it from using force to settle international disputes, has traditionally kept spending on defence to within 1% of GDP. Any attempt to break through that symbolic barrier could encounter resistance at home and spark protests from China.
Yoshihiko Suzuki, who voted for opposition candidates, said he hoped Kishida’s win would bring an end to the “arrogance and complacency” that had characterised his predecessors’ administrations.
“I hope this election comes as a wakeup call for them,” the retired 68-year-old said. “If it does, the LDP will become a better party, considering the number of talented lawmakers they’ve got.”