Unified Nationwide Local Elections: Implications on Possible Snap Election

Dr. Satohiro Akimoto
Chairman and President of Sasakawa USA

Publications Unified Nationwide Local Elections: Implications on Possible Snap Election

Japan’s Unified Nationwide Local Elections

Japan is in the midst of the campaign period for nationwide local elections. These local elections called toitsu chiho senkyo, or Unified Nationwide Local Elections, are held every four years to streamline elections in a unified manner by combining local assembly elections, gubernatorial elections, and mayoral elections together with by-elections to fill vacant upper and lower house seats. Unified nationwide local elections are designed to not only streamline the election process, but also reduce administrative costs and hopefully increase voter turnout.

This year’s unified nationwide local elections will be held in two rounds in April. The first round will be held on April 9 for local assembly elections in 41 prefectures and 17 major cities called seirei shitei toshi. There will be no prefectural assembly elections in Iwate, Miyagi, Fukushima, Ibaraki, Tokyo, and Okinawa. In addition to elections for prefectural and major city assemblies, nine gubernatorial elections in Hokkaido, Kanagawa, Fukui, Osaka, Nara, Tottori, Shimane, Tokushima, and Oita together with six mayoral elections in Sapporo, Sagamihara, Shizuoka, Hamamatsu, Osaka and Hiroshima will be held on April 9, as well.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, Secretary-General of the Liberal Democratic Party Toshimitsu Motegi, and former Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Koichi Hagiuda demonstrate their determination to lead the LDP to victory in Japan’s upcoming unified local elections to be held in April. Both Motegi and Hagiuda are possible challengers to Prime Minister Kishida in the next party presidency election in September 2024. (Photo by Kyodo News via Getty Images)

The second round of elections will be held on April 23 for mayors and assembly members of Tokyo’s wards, as well as smaller cities, towns, and villages in Japan. In addition to a large number of these local elections, five by-elections will be held on the same day for lower house seats in the Chiba No. 5 district, the Wakayama No. 1 district, the Yamaguchi No. 2 and No. 4 districts, and an upper house seat in Oita Prefecture.

Major issues of concern for voters nationwide are rising prices, measures to reverse declining birthrates, a possible tax hike for increased defense spending, and the Family Federation for Word Peace and Unification (formerly known as the Unification Church). However, the phrase “all politics is local” is true in Japan, too.  Regional political, economic, and social concerns loom large in the 985 regional elections scheduled this time.

The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) national leadership aims to win more than half of the 2,260 seats to be contested in the prefectural assembly elections. The party secured 50.9 percent of prefectural assembly seats in the previous unified nationwide elections. It is currently believed that the LDP will not drastically reduce its seats mainly due to the weakness of opposition parties. In the latest Kyodo polls, the LDP enjoys approval ratings of 40.6 percent, whereas the leading opposition Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP) has approval ratings of 9.6 percent, and the second leading opposition party Nihon Ishin No Kai has approval ratings of 7.2 percent.

Figure 1. Approval Rating of Japan’s Political Parties

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

Under such circumstances, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and the LDP national leadership seem to be taking a position to local elections of leading from behind. Toshimitsu Motegi, Secretary-General of the LDP, is said to mention “local elections are best to be handled by local people.”

Five By-Elections

The LDP national leadership is paying a lot of attention to five by-elections which consist of four lower house seats and one upper house seat. Given that there are no major national elections scheduled for 2023, these by-elections have strong implications for Prime Minister Kishida’s calculus to extend his party leadership, and hence position as prime minister, beyond September 2024 when the next party presidency election is scheduled to be held.  More concretely, Prime Minister Kishida will review results of the unified nationwide local elections—particularly results of five by-elections—to determine whether or not to hold a snap election within 2023 and, if so, when he is going to hold a snap election.

Prime Minister Kishida and his advisors are optimistic about the five by-elections where the LDP might score wins in all five and should come away with more wins than losses even in the worst case scenario. If the LDP wins all five by-elections, Prime Minister Kishida might be encouraged to hold a snap-election as early as this summer following a successful showing as a world leader chairing the G7 summit in Hiroshima this May. He might also consider holding a snap election in the fall before the government concretely proposes a tax increase, which undoubtedly will be unpopular among voters.

Nobuchiyo Kishi announces his intention to run for the House of Representatives seat previously held by his father, former Minister of Defense Nobuo Kishi, in an upcoming by-election. (Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)

However, there are those within the LDP who do not share the same optimistic views with Prime Minister Kishida and his advisors. These concerned members are bothered with the delay or failure in appointing strong candidates in all five by-elections due to a low level of leadership displayed by Prime Minister Kishida, Secretary-General Toshimitsu Motegi, and the Head of Election Strategy Committee Hiroshi Moriyama. They see that two by-elections in Yamaguchi are probably winnable as one seat was held by the late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the other was held by former Minister of Defense Nobuo Kishi, the late Prime Minister Abe’s brother. Although, there still is concern among some members that it might be possible the LDP has more losses than wins in these five by-elections. Obviously, this worst-case scenario will make it very difficult, if not impossible, for Prime Minister Kishida to call a snap election in 2023.

Prime Minister Kishida may still be able to hold a snap election with three wins and two losses in five by-elections. Though his ability to guide the LDP to a big victory in a snap election will certainly be diminished by a poor showing in these five by-elections. Under such circumstances, rank and file LDP lawmakers, who have become fearful of losing their seats, might revolt against Prime Minister Kishida and suggest he step down as LDP president and prime minister.

No Strong Challenger in Sight

Since he became prime minister in October 2021, Prime Minister Kishida enjoyed unexpectedly high approval ratings until last summer. However, his approval ratings suffered serious decline due to his decision to hold a state funeral for former PM Abe, and his handling of the relationship between the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification and some LDP lawmakers, which resulted in the resignation of four cabinet ministers in two months. Prime Minister Kishida’s disapproval ratings overtook his approval ratings in September 2022. His approval ratings have been depressed in the 30 percent range and his disapproval ratings have stayed over 50 percent for several months now. While Prime Minister Kishida’s approval ratings recently have picked up and his disapproval ratings have declined, in short, Prime Minister Kishida’s approval ratings are still low, and his disapproval ratings are still too high.

Figure 2. Prime Minister Kishida’s Cabinet Approval Rating

Note: Approvals and disapprovals of the Kishida Cabinet compiled by Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA.

While Prime Minister Kishida does not enjoy high popularity, he has been aided by a lack of serious challengers to his leadership. Minister of State for Economic Security, Sanae Takaichi, received the second highest number of votes behind Prime Minister Kishida from fellow LDP lawmakers in the last party presidency election. However, Ms. Takaichi found herself in trouble over documents obtained by the CDP’s Hiroyuki Konishi from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. As a result, Ms. Takaichi seems to have lost sympathy from fellow LDP lawmakers, including upper house leader Hiroshige Seko, by making unprofessional and emotional statements in a Diet session.

Minister of Digital Affairs Taro Kono received the highest number of votes among local chapter LDP members—more than Prime Minister Kishida—in the last party presidency election. Mr. Kono is very capable, energetic, and even charismatic. He is one of the most popular lawmakers, if not the most, in Japan due to his friendly character and use of social media. Mr. Kono is also highly regarded in the public’s eye due to his excellent English and American mannerisms, which he acquired while studying at Georgetown University. However, he lacks support among LDP Diet members. He only received about half as many votes from fellow LDP lawmakers as Prime Minister Kishida received in the last party presidency election.

Mr. Motegi enjoys a reputation as one of the most capable lawmakers. His experience includes important cabinet and party positions such as minister of foreign affairs; minister of economy, trade and industry; secretary-general; chair of the policy research council; and chair of the election strategy committee. However, Mr. Motegi has not been able to raise his popularity among voters and widen his support among fellow LDP lawmakers. Additionally, Mr. Motegi is 67 years old, two years older than Prime Minister Kishida.

The largest faction within the LDP—the former Abe faction, Seiwa Seisaku Kenkyukai— has not been able to come up with a successor following the assassination of former Prime Minister Abe. The faction has capable and strong leaders such as former Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Koichi Hagiuda and Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Yasutoshi Nishimura. Mr. Hagiuda recently mentioned that a new leader for Seiwa Seisaku Kenkyukai should be selected by the one-year anniversary of Prime Minister Abe’s assassination, which means a new leader should be in place by this July.

As it was mentioned before, Prime Minister Kishida does not enjoy high popularity or approval ratings. Yet lackluster opposition parties combined with a lack of visible challengers provides opportunities for Prime Minister Kishida to consider a snap election as early as this summer, assuming victories in unified nationwide local elections in April followed by a successful G7 summit in Prime Minister Kishida’s hometown of Hiroshima this May.

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