The 2021 General Election Campaign Kicks Off


October 19, 2021

Dr. Daniel M. Smith, Gerald L. Curtis Visiting Associate Professor of Modern Japanese Politics and Foreign Policy, Columbia University

The four candidates running in the presidential election of Japan’s ruling LDP pose after attending a debate in Tokyo on Sept. 18, 2021. The four (from left to right) Vaccination Minister Taro Kono, former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, former Communications Minister Sanae Takaichi, and Executive Acting Secretary General of the LDP Seiko Noda are vying for the post currently held by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. (Photo by Kyodo News via Getty Images)

The campaign for the House of Representatives general election has officially begun, with nine parties offering the electorate a range of policy visions for Japan’s future. Whether these messages will resonate over the 12 days of campaigning, and how many voters will actually turn out (either in early voting or on election day, October 31) will be key to determining whether Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and his LDP-Komeito ruling coalition stay in power, and the size of his majority. Here’s the situation as it stands at the start of the campaign.

Kishida and the LDP-Komeito ruling coalition

Kishida was elected president of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) on September 29, defeating Taro Kono, Sanae Takaichi, and Seiko Noda. It was a historic leadership election not only for the gender parity in candidates, but also for the closeness of the competition and uncertainty in the outcome.

Early in the campaign, Kono was viewed as the favorite to win, thanks to his prominent role as vaccine czar and his popularity with the public.[1] But in the first round of voting (which included votes from rank-and-file party members), he and Kishida were neck-and-neck, 255 vs. 256, followed by Takaichi with 188 votes and Noda with 63. Since no candidate won an outright majority, the vote went to a runoff (in which Diet members’ votes are dominant), and Kishida won with 257 votes to Kono’s 170.[2] The House of Representatives elected Kishida to be the 100th prime minister (64th individual in the post) on October 4, and he dissolved the chamber on October 14 after putting together his cabinet.[3]

Prior to dissolution, the LDP and Komeito together held 305 of 465 seats in the House of Representatives, and Kishida has set the modest goal of winning 233 seats, enough to sustain the coalition’s majority.

Kishida’s support rate stands at around 40 percent approval according to a recent Jiji poll.[4] This is considerably higher than the support rate for his predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, which was as low as 26 percent before Suga decided not to run for re-election.[5] But Kishida’s approval rating is the lowest for a new prime minister since Taro Aso (2008-2009), and lower than when Suga began his administration last year. Support for the LDP as a party is lower than support for Kishida, at 27 percent in the same Jiji poll, but this still dwarves support for any other party. The main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP), for example, has just 4 percent support.

One Kyodo poll reports that about 30 percent of voters intend to vote for the LDP in the proportional representation (PR) ballot for the election, compared to 10 percent who intend to vote for the CDP.

Kishida is attempting to portray his leadership of the LDP as an opportunity for renewal and change from the past nine years of government policy under former prime ministers Shinzo Abe (2012-2020) and Suga (2020-2021).[7] The LDP’s policy manifesto calls for a “new capitalism” to rebuild the middle class, which seems to be a clear response to critiques that the economic policies of his predecessors (“Abenomics”) have exacerbated inequality between the rich and poor.[8] However, many of the policies Kishida promoted in the LDP presidential contest are not featured in the manifesto. Instead, the manifesto contains several policies, such as investment in crisis management, that were pushed by Takaichi, one of Kishida’s rivals for leadership, and the chair of the party’s Policy Research Council.

Komeito’s manifesto similarly focuses on social spending, especially to mitigate the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.[10] As in other recent elections, issues that could potentially divide the coalition and alienate Komeito’s supporters, such as constitutional revision,[11] are relegated to the fine print near the end of the manifesto. The support of Komeito voters for LDP candidates in the single-seat district races has been a key source of LDP electoral success.[12] But the support (and turnout) of Komeito voters is not guaranteed.

The opposition parties

The opposition has coordinated on candidate nomination decisions in advance of the election in a way that is reminiscent of the 2009 general election––the first and last time that the LDP lost its status as the largest party since it was founded in 1955.

There are 289 single-seat district contests allocated by plurality rule separately from the 176 PR seats. The CDP spent the past several months working out differences with the Japanese Communist Party (JCP), Social Democratic Party (SDP), Reiwa Shinsengumi, and (in part) the Democratic Party for the People (DPFP), to avoid the kind of over-nomination and fragmentation that has handed the LDP easy wins in recent elections. These parties are supporting a single candidate in over 200 of the 289 districts.[13] In addition, many of the LDP’s candidates are first-time candidates, as dozens of veteran incumbents decided to retire before the election.[14]

In the 2017 general election, the average vote share for a winning LDP candidate in the 121 most densely populated “urban” districts was 48 percent (compared to 55 percent in 88 “suburban” districts and 60 percent in 80 “rural” districts). In 2017, if the CDP, Ishin no Kai, and the Party of Hope had coordinated on candidacies, and had the unified candidates received the same vote shares as the disparate parties, then the combined vote of the opposition could have cost the LDP-Komeito coalition as many as 22 seats. Adding the JCP’s votes to this calculation could have cost the ruling coalition as many as 77 seats, almost enough to overturn their majority.[15]

The JCP has usually been reluctant to stand down in single-seat districts, and other opposition parties have been reluctant to enter into cooperation agreements with them.[16] This time is different. The CDP and JCP have announced that the JCP would not enter any potential government, but would simply support the CDP on legislation from outside of the executive. The parties are campaigning on policies to help mitigate inequality, and are offering a clear alternative policy vision from the LDP on social issues––including support for same-sex marriage and the right to separate surnames for married couples.[17] This makes it more difficult for LDP politicians to paint the CDP’s cooperation with the JCP as dangerous or radical on the grounds of national security or fears of communism, although several LDP leaders such as Kono, Abe, and LDP Secretary-General Akira Amari have tried out this critique.[18]

The main challenge for the opposition parties will be turnout. When more voters turn out, the opposition parties tend to fare better in elections. Coordination in single-seat districts is important to avoid splitting the opposition’s support, but it also means fewer candidates working to mobilize voters. A recent NHK poll indicates that only 52 percent of voters “absolutely” intend to turn out, which is similar to the past two elections.[19] If the opposition hopes to wrest control of the government from the LDP-Komeito coalition, it needs to drive up turnout to higher levels than in past elections.

Finally, it remains to be seen whether and how votes for Ishin and the DPFP will disrupt the opposition’s efforts. The conventional thinking is that these kinds of “third force” parties help the LDP-Komeito coalition by splitting the anti-LDP vote. However, both Ishin and DPFP are more conservative than the other opposition parties, and may attract votes from erstwhile LDP voters who dislike Kishida. It is also unclear whether their supporters would vote for a unified opposition candidate who has the support of the JCP. Special elections on October 24 for two House of Councillors vacancies, in Yamaguchi and Shizuoka prefectures, add additional uncertainty to the mix, and might serve as midway bellwethers of the lower house vote.

Whatever happens in the next 12 days, the 2021 general election is already shaping up to be more exciting––and uncertain––than the two previous elections that produced landslide victories for the LDP in 2014 and 2017.

 

[1] See the previous post for Japan Political Pulse: “Heavyweights Jostle to Lead LDP into a Suga-Free Diet Election.” https://spfusa.org/japan-political-pulse/heavyweights-jostle-to-lead-ldp-into-a-suga-free-diet-election/.

[2] Liberal Democratic Party. https://www.jimin.jp/news/information/202062.html.

[3] Sugiyama, Satoshi. “Lower House dissolved as Japan shifts into election season.” The Japan Times, October 14, 2021. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/10/14/national/politics-diplomacy/lower-house-dissolution/.

[4] Jiji. https://www.jiji.com/amp/article?k=2021101500722&g=pol. An NHK poll paints a more optimistic picture, at 49 percent support.

[5] See the previous post for Japan Political Pulse: “Will Suga Survive.” https://spfusa.org/japan-political-pulse/will-suga-survive/.

[6] Nikkei Shimbun. https://www.nikkei.com/article/DGXZQOUA172OG0X11C21A0000000/.

[7] Asahi Shimbun. https://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/14450169.

[8] Liberal Democratic Party. https://www.jimin.jp/news/policy/202101.html. The Financial Times. https://www.ft.com/content/ffa6754f-3c12-4729-921d-aa2acc5e96ee.

[9] Mainichi Shimbun. https://mainichi.jp/articles/20211013/ddm/005/010/102000c.

[10] Komeito. https://www.komei.or.jp/special/shuin49/wp-content/uploads/manifesto2021_s.pdf.

[11] McLaughlin, Levi. “Shifting Terrain: Soka Gakkai, Komeito, and Prospects for Constitutional Amendment.” https://soundcloud.com/harvardusjapan/shifting-terrain-soka-gakkai-komeito-and-prospects-for-levi-mclaughlinncsu.

[12] See Liff, Adam and Ko Maeda. 2019. “Electoral Incentives, Policy Compromise, and Coalition Durability: Japan’s LDP-Komeito Government in a Mixed Electoral System.” Japanese Journal of Political Science, 20(1):53-73. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/japanese-journal-of-political-science/article/electoral-incentives-policy-compromise-and-coalition-durability-japans-ldpkomeito-government-in-a-mixed-electoral-system/D153792B61853FAC9AF38A20E5076D32.

[13] Mainichi Shimbun. https://mainichi.jp/articles/20211016/k00/00m/010/160000c.

[14] NHK. https://www.nhk.or.jp/politics/articles/lastweek/70057.html.

[15] Scheiner, Ethan, Daniel M. Smith, and Michael F. Thies. 2018. “The 2017 Election Results: An Earthquake, a Typhoon, and Another Landslide.” In Robert J. Pekkanen, Steven R. Reed, Ethan Scheiner, and Daniel M. Smith (eds.), Japan Decides 2017: The Japanese General Election, pp. 29-50. Palgrave Macmillan. https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-319-76475-7_3.

[16] Maeda, Ko. 2018. The JCP: A Perpetual Spoiler? In Robert J. Pekkanen, Steven R. Reed, Ethan Scheiner, and Daniel M. Smith (eds.), Japan Decides 2017: The Japanese General Election, pp. 93-106. Palgrave Macmillan. https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-319-76475-7_6.

[17] Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan. https://change2021.cdp-japan.jp/news/2334.

[18] Sankei Shimbun. https://www.sankei.com/article/20211014-EZ2J7BVJ75MGZC3GBEQBFGJAIM/. See also https://www.sankei.com/article/20211015-FBF2G64JAVICTJCCHE7S6RUGCE/.

[19] NHK. https://www3.nhk.or.jp/news/html/20211011/k10013302241000.html.

 

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