TOKYO – In his first big test as Japanese prime minister, Fumio Kishida's ruling party is expected to lose seats in Sunday's national parliamentary elections, while still maintaining a majority.
Just how many parliament seats are lost will determine whether Kishida is destined to be a short-term leader or if he'll have enough allies to tackle a coronavirus-battered economy and worries over climate change, gender inequity, a fast-aging and dwindling population and China’s aggressive moves in a region Japan has long dominated.
Kishida, 64, was elected prime minister on Oct. 4 after winning the governing Liberal Democratic Party’s leadership race. The party's conservative leaders saw him as a safe status-quo successor to Yoshihide Suga, who left office after just a year in power.
Kishida’s immediate task has been to rally support for a party weakened by Suga’s perceived high-handed approach to pandemic measures and his insistence on holding the Tokyo Summer Olympics despite widespread opposition.
But Kishida's long-term grip on power will depend on how well he does in the election.
Kishida dissolved the lower house only 10 days after taking office, calling for this election and declaring that he wanted a mandate from voters for his new government before getting to work.
Kishida repeatedly stressed his determination to address criticism of the nine-year leadership of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Suga, who was handpicked by party heavyweights to replace Abe, the nation's longest-ever serving leader, after he abruptly resigned because of health problems.
The campaign has centered on COVID-19 response measures and revitalizing the economy, as well as diplomatic and security issues linked to China’s growing influence and North Korea’s missile and nuclear threat. Kishida, who inherits Suga’s pledge of achieving 2050 carbon neutrality, plans to rush over to the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland after the election.
At the start of the election campaign, Kishida had an unimpressive 40-45% support rating. Suga’s initial support rating, by contrast, was about 70%.
His lackluster start is likely linked in part to the general public support of Kishida's rival in the party vote for prime minister, Taro Kono, who is seen as something of a maverick.
Kishida has set a modest goal for the LDP and its coalition partner Komeito. He wants to jointly keep their majority, which would be 233 seats in the 465-member lower house. That’s a low bar, considering that the LDP alone had 276 seats before the election. A big drop, even if the party keeps its majority, would be a bad start for Kishida’s weeks-old administration.
Media polls suggest the LDP is likely to lose seats, in part because five opposition parties formed a united front in many small electoral constituencies and are expected to gain positions there.
If, as the Asahi newspaper and others predict, the ruling coalition wins around 261 seats, they could control all parliamentary committees and easily push through any divisive legislation.
Opposition leaders complain that recent LDP governments have widened the gap between rich and poor, didn't support the economy during the pandemic and stalled gender equality and diversity.
But the opposition has long struggled to win enough votes to form a government after a brief rule of the now-defunct center-left Democratic Party of Japan in 2009-2012. That government was toppled by Abe, who continuously pushed his party to the right, stepping up control over bureaucrats and muzzling opposing opinions.
Though many people are not actively supporting the LDP, “there is little enthusiasm among voters toward a change over to an opposition-led leadership,” says Yu Uchiyama, a University of Tokyo political science professor. “The problem is that opposition parties have not been able to present their grand vision of a future society” to become a viable leadership change option.
In a recent NHK television survey, over one-third of respondents chose Kishida's party as their top choice; another third said they don't support a particular party. A united opposition had about 13% support.
“The upcoming election is about how to overcome the pandemic crisis and determine a future path for Japan,” the conservative Yomiuri newspaper wrote in a recent editorial. Liberal-leaning Asahi said the focus is how to “conclude the Abe-Suga leadership that deeply damaged Japanese democracy and regain trust to politics.”
Kishida, a third-generation politician from Hiroshima, was once considered a moderate. But he now advocates a stronger military while backpedaling on gender equality, apparently to gain support from influential figures within his party.
Experts say Kishida must show loyalty to the party heavyweights who chose him.
“Having ‘borrowed’ support from these factions, Kishida will continue to be indebted to traditional LDP policy interests,” Aurelia George Mulgan, a social sciences professor at the University of New South Wales, wrote in the East Asia Forum. “Only a solid performance in the general election will strengthen Kishida’s hand in making the political, personnel and policy choices that will shape the future direction of his government.”
Kishida has called for cooperation with other democracies to counter China’s increasingly assertive activity in the region.
Worried about North Korea’s missile and nuclear technology advancement, Kishida has said Japan should consider acquiring the ability to strike an enemy base as a deterrence option. Pre-emptive strike options are controversial, and critics say they go beyond Japan’s war-renouncing constitution, which strictly limits the use of force to self-defense.
On the economy, Kishida has emphasized distribution and growth by income raises, while opposition groups focus more on distribution of wealth and call for cash payouts to pandemic-hit low-income households.
There are not huge differences between the ruling and opposition blocs on Japan's basic economic and security policies. But the LDP alone opposes legislation guaranteeing equality for sexual minorities and allowing separate surnames for married couples.
Of the 1,051 candidates, only 17% are women, despite a 2018 law promoting gender equality in elections, which is toothless because there is no penalty. Women account for about 10% of parliament.
Gender rights experts call Japan’s extremely low female presence in politics “democracy without women,” and say they have little hope of achieving further equality under the LDP rule.