Japan’s ruling conservative party held on to power in Sunday’s election, but gains by the opposition parties weakened prime minister Fumio Kishida’s authority as he attempts to steer the economy out of the coronavirus pandemic.
Kishida’s Liberal Democratic party and its junior coalition partner, Komeito, together have won 274 seats as of late Sunday, with about 40 seats still undecided, in the 465-member lower house, the more powerful of Japan‘s two-chamber Diet, public broadcaster NHK reported. The LDP has also won a single majority at 247 seats, with Komeito taking 27 seats, according to NHK.
Their combined strength has exceeded a parliamentary majority of 233 and also “an absolute majority” of 261 seats – a level that allows the ruling bloc to control all parliamentary committees and easily ram through legislation. But it also showed a loss from 305 seats previously.
The Constitutional Democratic party of Japan, the biggest opposition group, was expected to pick up seats, as was the rightwing populist Japan Innovation party, whose traditional base is in the western city of Osaka.
Sunday’s projected result was uncomfortably close for Kishida and the LDP, which has governed Japan almost uninterruptedly 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, has said he will 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 64-year-old centrist 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.
But analysts said Kishida had been damaged by his association with Shinzo Abe, who resigned as prime minister last year, and his protege Suga, who stepped down in September after a disastrous year in office. Kishida had promised a more responsive leadership and to address criticism of Abe’s “arrogance” – even when confronted by major scandals – an approach adopted by Suga.
Unusually for an incoming leader, Kishida did not enjoy a political honeymoon, with approval ratings around 50%, the lowest in two decades for a new administration in Japan.
The LDP’s narrow victory, and Kishida’s lacklustre ratings, could trigger a period of uncertainly and a return to the days of revolving-door prime ministers, which ended with Abe’s eight years in office.
“Revolving-door prime ministers is a weakness that many outside of Japan fear,” Sheila Smith, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in a blog post. “Prime Minister Kishida will need a unified party and a strong electoral showing on Oct. 31 if he is to successfully tackle Japan*s difficult national agenda.”
The LDP had hoped to emerge with a clear win after a tumultuous year, said Michael Cucek, assistant professor of Asian studies at Temple University. “The fact that they are still having to fight so hard is, for them, highly embarrassing,” Cucek said shortly before the vote. “If (Kishida) leads the party into a loss of seats, a clock starts ticking in the minds of his rivals in the party, saying ‘maybe he is only a one-year prime minister’.”
The opposition parties capitalised on unusually close cooperation, with five of them, including the communists, agreeing before the campaign began 12 days ago 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, all of which Kishida 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 spoken former banker whose rise has 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, is 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 will have to convince doveish colleagues in Komeito to back 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 would encounter resistance at home and spark protests from Beijing.
Shinji Asada, a Tokyo voter in his 40s, was among those who were hoping for a change in government, despite Kishida’s promise to listen more closely to voters than his predecessors.
“I didn’t think anything would change under Kishida after seeing his cabinet,” whose posts largely went to party factions that had supported his leadership bid.
Chihiro Sato, a Tokyo woman with a young child, said: “The economy is suffering because of the coronavirus, so I looked at how the different politicians planned to respond to that.”