Opposition Infightings Continue to Help Prime Minister Kishida

Dr. Ko Maeda
Associate Professor of Political Science, University of North Texas

Publications Opposition Infightings Continue to Help Prime Minister Kishida

Kishida in Struggle

It is no secret that Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is struggling. Earlier this year, his Cabinet approval ratings were on an upward trajectory. His Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) won four out of five by-elections on April 23, and the G7 summit in Hiroshima in late May went successfully with a surprise in-person appearance by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. However, Kishida’s Cabinet approval ratings have been declining since then. In a September 2023 NHK poll, the approval rate was 36 percent—slightly higher than in August but much lower compared to the 46 percent approval rate in May.[1]

The main reason behind Kishida’s unpopularity seems to be the technical issues with the My Number card, a universal ID card system, which the government has been trying to promote.[2] In a move seen by many as an attempt to boost his popularity, on September 13, Kishida reshuffled his Cabinet in which he appointed a record number of women.

Since Kishida’s current term as the leader of the LDP will end in a year, his utmost concern is to win re-election in the party leadership race in September 2024. The best scenario for Kishida is to have a lower house election before that and win it, enhancing his authority within the party so that no one will challenge him in the leadership race. However, the low approval rating is making his plans difficult. If Kishida’s popularity does not recover, he cannot go for an early election, and he will likely be challenged by formidable rivals in the LDP leadership race next year.

Opposition’s Second Chance?

An LDP prime minister struggling with a low approval rating may remind some of the 2006-2009 period which featured three short-lived LDP prime ministers and was capped by the resounding opposition victory in the August 2009 election. Yet, Kishida’s current situation is notably less difficult than that of the LDP leaders between 2006 and 2009 because the opposition’s threat is considerably weaker now.

When the LDP struggled from 2006 to 2009, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) was seen as the only viable opposition party. With the second largest opposition party being the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) with only nine lower house seats, the DPJ was essentially the opposition. For anyone who was not satisfied with the LDP government, the DPJ was the natural choice to turn to. In contrast, there are currently four opposition parties with double-digit lower house seats. The largest of them, the Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP), controls less than 60 percent of the total opposition seats in the lower house. With the opposition camp being divided rather than unified under one main party, the LDP is not facing a major challenge.[3]

Under the current electoral system, a little over 60 percent of the seats of the lower house are allocated to the single-member district (SMD) tier. Since each SMD elects only one politician, multiple candidates from the opposition side necessarily split anti-government votes and thus help the LDP. This has always posed a dilemma for Japan’s opposition parties since the current system was introduced in 1994. On the one hand, if many opposition parties independently nominate their own candidates in SMDs without coordination, their candidates hurt each other and end up giving many SMD seats to the LDP. For example, in the 2012 election in which 237 LDP candidates won their SMD races, 142 of them (60 percent) did so without winning 50 percent of the votes in their districts.

On the other hand, however, if the opposition parties coordinate candidate nomination in such a way that each SMD has only one opposition candidate, each party needs to give up nominating candidates in many SMDs, and by doing so, their campaigns may become less vigorous, and they lose chances to advertise their policy positions widely. Further, working with an ideologically incompatible party may be seen as opportunistic and invite criticism. Thus, each opposition party needs to make a difficult choice of whether to run many candidates or reduce the number of candidates and work with other parties.

The Constitutional Democratic Party is Torn

Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP) President Mr. Kenta Izumi visited Sasakawa USA in Washington, DC, on September 11, 2023. Photo (left to right): Mr. Go Shinohara (Member of the House of Representatives, CDP), Dr. Satohiro Akimoto (Sasakawa USA Chairman and President), Mr. Kenta Izumi, and Ms. Eri Tokunaga (Member of the House of Councillors, CDP). (Photo via Sasakawa USA)

The CDP, the largest opposition party, has been agonizing over its strategy and, more specifically, its relationship with the JCP. When the DPJ split into two in 2017, the left half became the CDP. Hence, it has been receiving support from left-leaning voters, and that is why a CDP candidate can lose votes if the JCP fields a competing candidate in the same district. Right before the 2021 lower house election, the then-leader of the DPJ, Yukio Edano, decided to work with the JCP. The CDP, the JCP, and two other smaller, left-wing opposition parties signed a joint policy agreement and worked together to coordinate candidate nomination.[4] Yet, the CDP lost seats in the 2021 election, and Edano resigned from the CDP leadership position.

Kenta Izumi took over as the CDP leader after Edano’s resignation. There is no doubt that Izumi is being careful not to take the same path his predecessor took. Right after his election to the party leadership in November 2021, Izumi announced that he would reconsider his party’s relationship with the JCP.[5] In January 2022, the CDP released a document that summarized its own analysis of the 2021 election. In it, the party clearly admitted that the coordinated candidate nomination with three other opposition parties “did not bring about the anticipated results,” and it also argued that the party needed to be more “prudent” in the future with respect to its cooperation with the JCP.[6]

As a result, opposition parties went into the July 2022 upper house election without much coordination. The JCP nominated its own candidates in 33 of the 45 prefectural districts, which was a major increase from the last two upper house elections in 2016 and 2019 when the JCP did so in only 14 districts. Predictably, the presence of multiple opposition candidates ended up splitting left-wing votes, and many consider it the main reason the CDP lost seats in that election.[7]

Upon reflection, the CDP hurt itself both when it worked with the JCP and when it did not work with the JCP. The dilemma the CDP finds itself in is so deep that Izumi himself does not seem to have a clear vision for his party’s strategy. His attitudes toward other opposition parties have been wavering quite wildly. In the fall of 2022, the CDP and Nippon Ishin no Kai (hereafter “Ishin” and known as the Japan Innovation Party) formed a close relationship, took the same positions on several controversial bills, and negotiated with the LDP together. Ishin is a right-leaning party and is currently the second largest among the opposition parties. The CDP-Ishin friendship continued into 2023, but it ended after the by-elections in April in which Ishin performed well and the CDP suffered a setback. It is reported that many CDP politicians came to see Ishin as a threat rather than an ally.[8]

On May 15, 2023, Izumi said on a TV news show that the CDP would compete in the next lower house election by itself, without cooperating with either Ishin or the JCP.[9] Yet, at a press conference on June 30, he said it was “possible” that his party negotiates with other opposition parties to coordinate candidate nominations.[10] Izumi’s fluctuating attitudes are probably a reflection of the division within his party. On the one hand, some within the CDP are strongly opposed to working with the JCP. Tetsuro Fukuyama, a veteran CDP politician, reportedly said “never again” about the CDP-JCP cooperation in 2021.[11] On the other hand, however, Ichiro Ozawa, the 81-year-old heavyweight who currently belongs to the CDP and was the leader of the DPJ in the past, strongly argues that all the opposition parties must cooperate and nominate only one opposition candidate in every SMD. He formed a group within the CDP for the purpose of pressuring the party leadership into negotiating with other parties. The group says more than half of the CDP’s lower house politicians agree with its cause.[12] The CDP’s internal problem appears to be quite grave.

The Japanese Communist Party’s Demands

The JCP’s position is clear: it wants to work with the CDP as it did in 2021. The JCP had a stubbornly isolationist attitude in the past, harshly criticizing all the other parties and never showing any interest in cooperating with others. However, it made a historic change in its position in 2015 and has been deeply committed to its new strategy of working with other opposition parties (excluding what it sees as right-leaning ones, such as Ishin) and aiming for an establishment of a coalition government with them.[13] The JCP is asking the CDP to not only coordinate their candidate nominations in SMDs, but also agree on policy matters going into the next election.[14] The ideal scenario for the CDP is for the JCP to unilaterally withdraw candidates in SMDs without asking the CDP for any policy concessions so that the CDP will not be criticized for being close to the JCP, but the JCP is not easily allowing that to happen.

What complicates the situation further is the fact that the JCP is intensely disliked by Ishin and the Democratic Party for the People (DPP). Ishin’s leader Nobuyuki Baba called the JCP “a party that should disappear from Japan.”[15]  The DPP’s leader Yuichiro Tamaki said that his party would not coordinate candidate nomination “with a party that works with the JCP.”[16] The CDP is sandwiched by the JCP on its left and Ishin and the DPP on its right. It is impossible for the four parties to work together.

The Democratic Party for the People’s Leadership Race

The DPP traces its origin to the right half of the DPJ when it split into two in 2017. The party currently has ten lower house seats—the same number as the JCP. Since both the CDP and the DPP have their roots in the same party, there have been calls for the two to merge and create a larger opposition party. Yet, Tamaki has rejected such suggestions and has been striving to make his party stronger on its own. Also, Tamaki’s positions sometimes seem pro-LDP. For instance, in February 2022, Tamaki made his party’s legislators vote for the government’s budget proposal, which is quite an unusual act for an opposition party.[17]

The DPP had an internal leadership election on September 2, 2023. Seiji Maehara, a veteran politician who once served as the leader of the DPJ, challenged Tamaki in that race, arguing that the DPP should be cooperating with other opposition parties (but not with the JCP), but Tamaki defeated Maehara in a landslide manner.[18] Results like this are a favorable outcome for the LDP.

Ishin Has both Good Momentum and Internal Issues

Ishin currently has the highest popularity rating among the opposition parties (5.8 percent in the September 2023 NHK poll, compared to the CDP’s 4.0 percent). Ishin was originally a local party based in Osaka but has been expanding its support base beyond Osaka and its surrounding areas. In the 2021 lower house election, it greatly increased its seats and became the second largest opposition party. In the 2022 upper house election, Ishin received more proportional representation (PR) votes (14.8 percent) than the CDP (12.8 percent). The party is picking up a good momentum and is aiming to surpass the CDP in the seat share in the next lower house election.

Ishin also contains an internal problem. On August 6, its leader Nobuyuki Baba said in a radio show that there may be a possibility for Ishin to join the ruling coalition if the LDP and its partner Komeito lose a majority in the lower house.[19] Four days later, Hirofumi Yoshimura, a popular Ishin politician who is currently the governor of Osaka, strongly rebuffed Baba’s idea, saying that Ishin would disappear if it entered the ruling coalition.[20]

Considering that Ishin’s popularity now is more than three times higher than it was before the 2021 election,[21] it seems highly likely, to say the least, that Ishin will gain seats in the next election. Earlier research suggests that when Ishin increases its vote share, other opposition parties suffer first before the LDP.[22] This pattern bodes ill for the CDP.

In addition to the four opposition parties discussed here, there are four other minor opposition parties that currently have at least one seat in Japan’s national parliament. With all eight of them working to expand their bases and pondering their strategies, the LDP-Komeito coalition is spared from a serious threat. What is getting Kishida’s attention is his rivals within the party, rather than the opposition parties.

[1] “内閣支持率 (Cabinet approval rate),” NHK, updated on September 11, 2023, https://www.nhk.or.jp/senkyo/shijiritsu/.

[2] “内閣支持26.6%、過去最低水準 マイナ対応、7割評価せず―時事世論調査 (Cabinet support 26.6%, lowest level ever, 70% do not approve My Number responses – Jiji opinion poll),” JiJi Press Ltd., August 10, 2023, https://www.jiji.com/jc/article?k‌=2023081000699&g=pol.

[3] Ko Maeda, “Divided We Fall: Opposition Fragmentation and the Electoral Fortunes of Governing Parties.” British Journal of Political Science 40, no. 2 (April 2010): 419-434,  https://doi.org/10.1017/S000712340999041X. My earlier research demonstrates that the extent to which the opposition is unified or fragmented significantly influences the ruling parties’ electoral fortunes.

[4] Ko Maeda, “The Continuing Predicament of Japan’s Opposition,” Japan Political Pulse, Sasakawa USA, January 13, 2022, https://spfusa.org/publications/the-continuing-predicament-of-japans-opposition/.

[5] “立民・泉代表、共産と合意「現在はない」 共闘修正探る (Ritsumin leader Izumi says there is no agreement with the Communist Party, seeking a change to the joint effort arrangement,” Nihon Keizai Shimbun, November 30, 2021,  https://www.nikkei.com/‌article/DGXZQOUA262880W1A121C2000000/.

[6] “立民、共産との選挙協力「修正」 衆院選敗北を総括 (Ritsumin ‘revises’ electoral cooperation with the Communist Party, sums up defeat in the House of Representatives election),” Nihon Keizai Shimbun, January 27, 2022, https://www.nikkei.com/article/‌DGXZQOUA‌267UI0W2A120C2000000/.

[7] “野党第1党、立民17議席で過去最少 維新は12議席に倍増 (The largest opposition party, Ritsumin, won 17 seats, the lowest ever, while  Ishin has doubled to 12 seats.),” Nihon Keizai Shimbun, July 11, 2022, https://www.nikkei.com/article/‌DGXZQOUA‌1078L0Q2A710C2000000/.

[8] “立民、維新と共闘解消へ 衆院選にらみ対決姿勢 (Ritsumin to dissolve the cooperation relationship with Ishin, showing a confrontational stance in view of the House of Representatives election),” JiJi Press Ltd., May 12, 2023, https://www.jiji.com/jc/article?k=2023051201253&g=pol.

[9] “立民 泉代表 “維新と共産とは選挙協力や候補者調整行わない” (Ritsumin leader Izumi: ‘No cooperation with Ishin and the Communist Party.’),” NHK, May 15, 2023, https://www.nhk.or.jp/politics/‌articles/statement/99107.html.

[10] “立民代表、候補者調整を容認 次期衆院選へ方針転換 (Ritsumin leader allows coordinated candidate nomination, changes his position for the next House of Representatives election),” JiJi Press Ltd., June 30, 2023, https://www.jiji.com/jc/article?k=2023063000962&g=pol.

[11]立憲民主・福山氏「共産党との共闘は二度とごめんだ」 泉代表が「野党各党と調整を行う方針」を示すも (Mr. Fukuyama of the Constitutional Democracy Party says, ‘We will never again fight together with the Communist Party.’ Although leader Izumi has indicated that he will ‘coordinate with other opposition parties.’),” Nippon Broadcasting News Online, July 10, 2023, https://news.1242.com/article/‌448618.

[12] “立民 衆院選小選挙区での野党候補一本化へ 党内に「有志の会」 (Internal group within Ritsumin seeking to unify opposition candidates in single-member  districts for the House of Representatives elections),” NHK, June 16, 2023, https://www3.nhk.or.jp/news/html/20230616/k10014101401000.html.

[13] Ko Maeda, “The JCP: A Perpetual Spoiler?” in Japan Decides 2017: The Japanese General Election, ed. Robert J. Pekkanen, Steven R. Reed, Ethan Scheiner, and Daniel M. Smith, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-76475-7_6.

[14] “共産、立民に「政権合意」要求 共闘路線への転換、明確に説明を (Communist Party demands ‘agreement on governing principles’ from Ritsumin; asking for a clear explanation on the changing position),” JiJi Press Ltd., July 6, 2023, https://www.jiji.com/jc/article?k‌=2023070600950&g=pol.

[15] Takero Yamazaki and Kazunori Haga, “維新は「第2自民党でいい」 馬場代表が発言、立憲と共産は反発 (‘A second Liberal Democratic Party is fine’ Ishin leader Baba says, and Ritsumin and the Communist party oppose it.),”Asahi Shimbun Digital, July 24, 2023,https://digital.asahi.com/‌articles/‌ASR7S6DC9R7SUTFK00B.html.

[16] “国民民主・玉木氏、立民が共産と組むなら「協力しない」 (Mr. Tamaki of the Democratic Party for the People says, “We will not cooperate with Ritsumin” if Ritsumeikan works with the Communist Party.)” Nihon Keizai Shimbun, July 8, 2023, https://www.nikkei.com/article‌/DGXZQOUA082TY0Y3A700C2000000/.

[17] “国民民主、22年度予算案に賛成 野党で異例の対応:原油高対策の首相発言を評価 (Democratic Party of the People approves of FY2022 budget bill, an unusual response among opposition parties: Approves Prime Minister’s comments on countermeasures against high oil prices),” Nihon Keizai Shimbun , February 21, 2022, https://www.nikkei.com/article/DGXZQOUA2138R0R20C22A2000000/.

[18] “自民、国民民主党に連立協議の打診検討…「与党と協調路線」玉木代表の再選で (Liberal Democratic Party considers approaching the Democratic Party of the People for coalition talks…With the re-election of Tamaki, who is taking a ‘cooperative stance with the ruling parties’),” Yomiuri Shimbun Online, September 3, 2023, https://www.yomiuri.co.jp/politics/20230903-OYT1T50038/.

[19] “自公過半数割れなら「連立余地」 維新代表 (If the LDP and the Komeito lose a majority, there is ‘room for a coalition’: Ishin leader),” JiJi Press Ltd., August 6, 2023, https://www.jiji.com/jc/‌article?k‌=2023080600200&g=pol.

[20] “連立入りなら「維新消滅」吉村共同代表  (If Ishin joins the coalition, it will disappear, says Yoshimura, co-leader),” JiJi Press Ltd., August 10, 2023, https://www.jiji.com/jc/article?k=2023081001097&g=pol.

[21] “内閣支持率 (Cabinet approval rate),” NHK, updated on October 11, 2021, https://www.nhk.or.jp/senkyo/shijiritsu/archive/2021_10_1.html.

[22] Ko Maeda, “The 2021 Election Results,” in Japan Decides 2021: The Japanese General Election, ed. Robert J. Pekkanen, Steven R. Reed, and Daniel M. Smith,  (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022), https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-11324-6_3.

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