Tailwinds Favorable for Kishida and LDP in July’s Upper House Election

Dr. Satohiro Akimoto
Chairman and President of Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA

Publications Tailwinds Favorable for Kishida and LDP in July’s Upper House Election

Nine leaders of Japan’s ruling and opposition parties take part in a debate hosted by the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo on June 21, 2022, for the July 10 House of Councillors election. (L-R) Mizuho Fukushima of the Social Democratic Party, Yuichiro Tamaki of the Democratic Party for the People, Ichiro Matsui of the Nihon Ishin no Kai, Kenta Izumi of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of the Liberal Democratic Party, Natsuo Yamaguchi of Komeito, Kazuo Shii of the Japanese Communist Party, Taro Yamamoto of Reiwa Shinsengumi and Takashi Tachibana of NHK Party. (Photo by Kyodo News via Getty Images)

Japan’s Upper House election race is underway with voting set to take place on July 10. This Upper House election is critically important for Prime Minister Fumio Kishida because, after this election, there is no national election scheduled for the next three years. In other words, a convincing victory for Kishida’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in this summer’s election should give him plenty of time to lay a foundation to make himself a long-lasting political leader of Japan. Therefore, Kishida has been focusing on protecting his popularity by emphasizing that he listens to people and by not doing anything controversial.[1] As a matter of fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that Kishida has been single-mindedly focusing on winning the Upper House election since his election as LDP president in September 2021.

High Approval Rating for Kishida and the LDP

Kishida’s LDP leads the opposition with a significant margin in the latest polls. According to the Kyodo polls, which are the most recent among the major polls, the LDP enjoys a whopping 46.5 percent party approval rating while all other political parties have only a single digit approval rating.

Figure 1. Party Approval Ratings
Note: Approval ratings of the main Japanese political parties compiled by Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA.

The opposition parties seem to be in total disarray following a miserable defeat in a Lower House election held on October 31, 2021. The main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP) teamed up with the Japan Communist Party (JCP), the Social Democratic Party (SDP), and Reiwa Shinsengumi (Reiwa) in last fall’s Lower House election in an effort to defeat the ruling coalition’s candidates by uniting behind single candidates. However, it turned out to be a fatal strategic miscalculation which led to a devastating loss and forced CDP leader Yukio Edano to step down. As a result, CDP’s new leader Kenta Izumi has stepped back cautiously in their cooperation with the JCP in the Upper House election. In short, the opposition parties do not seem to be in position to challenge the LDP in July’s Upper House election.

The approval rating for Kishida’s cabinet fortifies the LDP’s strength. In the latest polls, his cabinet enjoys an exceptionally high approval rating of about 60 percent. Additionally, his cabinet has an unusually low disapproval rating of about 25 percent. In a way, Kishida is lucky. His government has received a remarkably high approval rating of 68.4 percent with an exceptionally low disapproval rating of 28.2 percent.[2] Obviously, part of the government’s success in the eyes of Japanese citizens should be credited to former Prime Minister Suga. Additionally, geopolitical developments such as Russia’s flagrant invasion of Ukraine, China’s increasingly aggressive behaviors near Japan, and U.S. President Joe Biden’s recent visit to Tokyo clearly help Kishida project himself as a strong global leader. For example, in the latest Yomiuri polls, the approval rating for the government’s response to Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine is 64 percent while the disapproval rating is only 26 percent.[3]

Figure 2. Cabinet Approval Ratings
Note: Approvals and disapprovals of the Kishida cabinet compiled by Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA.

Kishida’s Election to Lose?

Japan’s Upper House has 248 lawmakers serving six-year terms. Elections are every three years for half of them. This election will select a total of 125 members, as there is one additional contest to fill a vacancy in Kanagawa prefecture. A total of 545 candidates are in the running for these seats and more than 30 percent of the total are female. Out of 125 seats, which are up for grabs, 50 members will be elected through an open-list proportional representation system and 74 members will be elected by direct votes for candidates in 45 prefectural districts. Prefectural districts are divided into 32 single-member districts and 13 multiple-member districts, which elect 42 members.

Figure 3. Breakdown of LDP and Komeito Upper House Election Seats
Note: In the Upper House, total election seats not up for election, up for election, and coalition totals for the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito. Figure 3 compiled by Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA.

Kishida intentionally set the bar for victory low by saying victory would be the LDP together with coalition partner, Komeito, controlling more than 50 percent of the chamber. Since a total of 69 seats within the two-party coalition are not up for re-election in this election cycle (55 with the LDP and 14 with Komeito), Kishida needs 56 members between the LDP and Komeito to win to reach his publicly stated goal. Since Komeito is likely to defend all or almost all of its 14 seats that are up for election (Komeito holds 28 seats in total), the threshold for the LDP victory is relatively low. In other words, Kishida can still claim “victory” even if the LDP loses up to 13 seats and Komeito protects all 14 of its seats.

Kishida would love to secure an even larger mandate by winning a majority of the 125 seats up for grabs, i.e., that means at least 63 seats. Again, if Komeito protects all 14 of its seats, the LDP needs to win 49 seats out of 55 seats up for election. According to the latest polls by Asahi, Kyodo, and Mainichi, it is possible for the LDP and Komeito to reach 63 seats to win more than half of all the seats up for grabs this time.[4] Furthermore, in the best case scenario for Kishida, the LDP might capture close to 68 seats. It seems significant that the LDP candidates lead in 25 out of 32 single-member districts and have a chance to score victory in all multi-member districts.

As demonstrated by the results of the Lower House election last fall, the opposition parties in general seem to have lost the confidence of voters. No credible observers give the opposition parties any chance to win a majority of the 125 seats up for election, as the CDP proclaims as its goal for this election. This is a tough fight for CDP leader Kenta Izumi to stay relevant in Japanese politics. While the CDP is fielding 51 candidates, the party might not be able to maintain its 23 seats that are up for grabs this time. A notable exception is Nihon Ishin no Kai, which set a goal of doubling its seats from 6 to 12 this time. Nihon Ishin no Kai registered an extraordinarily strong showing in Osaka in last fall’s Lower House election and continues to maintain strong appeal in the Kansai region.

While the LDP’s lead in this election seems certain at this time, being complacent and taking victory for granted are the biggest dangers for the LDP. As of this writing, there are still nearly two weeks to go until voting day and recent polling shows Japanese citizens are increasingly frustrated with rising prices for food and energy coupled with stagnant earnings. Some LDP lawmakers and candidates, particularly those who have a tough battle in this election, are concerned that Kishida is spending too much time abroad in June rather than focusing on the Upper House election. During June, Kishida attended the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, the G7 summit in Germany, and the NATO summit in Spain. Toshiaki Endo, chairperson of the Election Strategy Committee, is warning leaders within the party against letting their guard down.

Clear Sailing Ahead? Not So Fast

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida waves after making a speech in Kuwana in Mie Prefecture on June 17, 2022, ahead of the House of Councillors election on July 10. (Photo by Kyodo News via Getty Images)

Assuming the LDP wins in the Upper House election, there will be critically important priorities for Kishida to firmly establish political leadership. First, Kishida needs to clearly present his political visions and policy guidelines, which will serve as a foundation of his tenure as prime minister. While Kishida has used slogans such as “Courteous and Generous Politics,” “Digital Garden City Nation,” and “Reiwa Era’s Income Doubling Plan,” they seem to be convenient imitations of old slogans of the Kochikai faction within the LDP, of which he is a member. More importantly, “New Capitalism Plan,” which is supposed to be Kishida’s signature economic strategy to stimulate healthy growth combined with realization of equal income distribution, the so-called New Form of Capitalism, has not gained traction even within the LDP.[5] Furthermore, Kishida must present a clear national security vision, as Japanese citizens become increasingly concerned with new emerging threats worldwide. Kishida must decide on how to deal with inherently difficult issues, which Japan has not faced squarely throughout the post-war period, such as strengthening national defense capabilities, constitutional revision, and nuclear deterrence.

Second, Kishida needs to continue to manage LDP’s internal politics, particularly his relationship with powerful faction leaders as head of the smaller Kochikai faction. Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been vocal about national security issues and eager to influence on appointments in the second Kishida cabinet, after the LDP’s presumable victory in the upcoming Upper House election. Abe, leader of the largest faction within the LDP, is certainly the biggest force to reckon with for Kishida. In addition, former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is known to harbor ill-will toward Kishida, as Kishida ushered in the end of Suga’s prime ministership in August 2021. Suga does not have a faction of his own but can form a formidable group with two old guards, Toshihiro Nikai and Hiroshi Moriyama, who Kishida has given the cold shoulder. Kishida also needs to manage his relationship with Toshimitsu Motegi, Secretary General, who is a smart, ambitious, and impatient leader of his own faction. Motegi has been trying to maintain a good relationship with former Prime Minister Taro Aso, as well as Abe, in addition to his relationship with Kishida. Motegi, who will be 67 years old this October, knows that the longer Kishida remains prime minister, the smaller his chance to become prime minister.

Third, conventional wisdom suggests that Kishida will have a three-year reign following victory in July’s Upper House election, he is going to face important elections such as local elections in 2023 and the LDP’s presidential election in 2024. It is likely that Kishida will seek an opportunity to hold a snap election for the Lower House sometime between the end of this year and the local elections next year. If Kishida does score a victory in a possible snap election and local elections, he most likely will not have a challenger in the LDP presidential election. Finally, should the aforementioned transpire, Kishida then will have a stable political base to push forward with his agenda as leader of Japan. Needless to say, serious unforeseen domestic and international challenges will continue to emerge and can toss a monkey wrench in Kishida’s election strategy at any moment.

[1] Kishida is famous for his “Kishida notebook” on which he keeps “voices from the people” for many years. He uses “Kishida notebook” as a symbolic item during election campaigns to show Japanese citizens that he listens, perhaps, in an effort to distinguish himself from former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who are known for their top-down leadership. He distributed 3,000 notebooks with his signature to attendees at his faction’s political party held last month.
白見はる菜 (Haruna Shirami), “パーティーお土産の「岸田ノート」、メルカリで高値 2万円も (Party souvenir ‘Kishida notebook,’ high price of 20,000 yen at Mercari),” パーティーお土産の「岸田ノート」、メルカリで高値 2万円も:朝日新聞デジタル (asahi.com).

[2] “Yoron chosa,” Kyodo polling data between June 11-13, 2022, https://english.kyodonews.net/news/2022/06/eed242fbae05-kyodo-news-digest-june-13-2022–1-.html?phrase=Taro%%2020Kono%20&words= .

[3] “Yoron chosa,” Yomiuri polling data between June 3-5, 2022, https://www.yomiuri.co.jp/election/yoron-chosa/20220605-OYT1T50163/.

[4] “自公、改選過半数上回る勢い、維新は倍増視野 朝日序盤情勢調査 (Self-public, momentum exceeding the majority of re-elections, restoration is doubling prospects, Asahi early stage situation survey),” Asahi Shimbun, June 23, 2022, 自公、改選過半数上回る勢い、維新は倍増視野 朝日序盤情勢調査 [参院選2022]:朝日新聞デジタル (asahi.com); “自公、改選過半数上回る勢い 立民伸び悩み、参院選序盤情勢 (Self-public, momentum exceeding the majority of re-elections, sluggish growth of the citizens, the situation at the beginning of the upper house election),” Kyodo News, June 24, 2022, 自公、改選過半数上回る勢い 立民伸び悩み、参院選序盤情勢 | b.[ビードット] (kyodo.co.jp); “序盤情勢・毎日新聞総合調査 与党、改選過半数の公算大 自民、60台うかがう 立憲苦戦、議席減か (Early Situation/Mainichi Shimbun Comprehensive Survey Ruling Party Probable Re-election with a Majority for Liberal Democratic Party),” Mainichi Shimbun, June 27, 2022, 参院選2022:序盤情勢・毎日新聞総合調査 与党、改選過半数の公算大 自民、60台うかがう 立憲苦戦、議席減か | 毎日新聞 (mainichi.jp).

[5] Richard Katz, “Kishida retreats from new capitalism,” East Asia Forum, June 26, 2022, Kishida retreats from new capitalism | East Asia Forum.

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