Abe looks strong heading into the upper house campaign as opposition struggles to gain traction

Tobias Harris
July 2, 2019

The spring ordinary session of the Diet closed on June 26, marking the informal start to the campaign for Japan’s triennial House of Councillors elections on July 21, in which 124 of 245 seats in the Diet’s upper chamber will be up for election. At stake in this month’s vote is, ultimately, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s status heading into the final two years of his third three-year term as Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leader and prime minister. With LDP rules currently prohibiting him from seeking a fourth term–which, admittedly, could be changed–a disappointing outcome in the upper house elections could render the prime minister a lame duck. A strong performance, meanwhile, particularly one that preserved an upper house supermajority in favor of constitutional revision, could strengthen Abe’s hand and even give an additional boost to his pursuit of revision, which has languished in the Diet’s constitutional commissions.

While earlier polls in June suggested that the Abe cabinet’s and LDP’s support could be sinking after a long run of strong approval ratings due to the government’s muddled response to a Financial Services Agency (FSA) advisory council report that suggested that a Japanese couple that lived until 95 could face a shortfall of roughly ¥20 million (around $185,000) for retirement, the last polls ahead of the official start of the campaign on July 4 suggest that the ruling LDP-Komeito coalition could be positioned for a strong performance on July 21.

It is not just because the cabinet’s approval ratings have increased, although in an NHK poll conducted on June 28-30 the government’s net approval rose by six points, as its approval rating rose three points to 45% and its disapproval fell three points to 31%. Rather, the most important finding may be that public enthusiasm ahead of the upper house elections is running considerably lower than it was at this point before the 2016 upper house elections. Only 49% of respondents told NHK that they will definitely vote, eleven points lower than in 2016 (although NHK has since changed how it conducts its polls, complicated comparison), when turnout was 54.7%. The opposition bloc, led by the Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP), needs higher turnout in order to make gains at the ruling coalition’s expense, but this finding suggests that the opposition bloc’s efforts to draw upon public anxiety about the health of the social security system or Abe’s relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump has been ineffective at generating interest in the elections. Asked about what outcome they preferred, 29% of respondents said they wanted the opposition to gain seats, more than the 21% who said they wanted the ruling parties to gain seats but less than the 42% who said that either outcome is fine.

Yomiuri Shimbun and Nikkei Shimbun polls conducted over the same days as NHK’s poll recorded largely the same sentiments. In the Yomiuri poll, the government’s net approval was basically steady and, although the LDP and Komeito lost four points of support while the CDP and the Democratic Party for the People (DPP) gained three, the ruling coalition continues to hold a commanding lead when it comes to which parties voters will back in proportional representation (PR) voting bloc on July 21, with the LDP and Komeito polling 40% and 5% respectively and the CDP and DPP at 10% and 2% respectively. Yomiuri also found that interest in the election is lagging, with only 27% strongly interested and 44% somewhat interested and 49% in favor of the ruling coalition’s preserving its majority. The most significant finding in the Yomiuri poll is that it shows just how unsuccessful the opposition has been at using public concerns about the pension system to bolster its support. Although 83% of respondents said they felt “anxious” about the national pension system, 72% disapproved of the government’s handling of the FSA report, and 38% said pensions and social security is their top issue for deciding how to vote, the opposition parties have made virtually no headway on the eve of the campaign, suggesting they face an uphill battle getting voters excited enough to turn out and cast a protest vote against the government.

The Nikkei poll, meanwhile, recorded strong support for the government (56%, compared with 36% disapproval), and a similarly commanding lead for the ruling coalition in voting intentions for the PR bloc, with the LDP and Komeito polling at 44% and 6% respectively to only 14% and 1% for the CDP and DPP respectively. Nikkei found that not only does a majority (55%) favor the ruling coalition’s retaining a majority, but also a slight plurality (45%) favors maintenance of a supermajority in favor of constitutional revision (although 45% also oppose Abe’s prioritizing revision by 2020). Finally, the Nikkei poll suggests that the government faces no major policy liability heading into the campaign. 62% said the projected shortfall in retirement assets said individuals should fill the gap through their own efforts; 61% approve Abe’s relationship-building with Trump; 46% supports Abe’s proposal to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un without preconditions; and the public is neatly divided on the government’s plans for a 2% consumption tax hike on October 1, with 48% opposed and 45% in favor.

While a Kyodo News poll conducted on June 26-27 suggested that the race could be narrower than the other polls suggested–31% said they would vote for the ruling coalition’s candidate in their constituency, while 20% said the opposition candidate, and only 29% said they would back the LDP in PR, compared with 39% who said they were undecided and 10% who said CDP–the consensus between the NHK, Yomiuri, and Nikkei polls conducted over the same weekend (and the NHK poll’s large sample size) suggest that the ruling coalition’s position is strong heading into the start of the campaign. While it is highly unlikely the opposition bloc will win enough seats to deprive the ruling coalition of an upper house majority, at this point it appears that opposition candidates will struggle to bring enough voters out to deal Prime Minister Abe even a modest setback on July 21.

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