On Sunday, October 22nd, Japan’s voters will go to the polls to elect a new House of Representatives. Called by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to capitalize on both a fractured opposition and his cabinet’s recovering popularity, this is the fifth national election in the past five years; for voters in the nation’s capital, Tokyo, it’s the second trip to the polls of the past three months, following the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election over the summer.
Tokyo Review has published a lot on the topic of the election over the past few weeks – tracking questions over the wisdom of Shinzo Abe’s decision to hold an election at this point, the rise (and possible fall) of Yuriko Koike’s Hope Party, the electorate’s disapproval of the election itself, and the unexpected emergence of a viable liberal opposition force led by former Democratic Party leadership hopeful Yukio Edano. With only a couple of days left before the election, every party’s cards are now on the table, and we can start to draw some conclusions about how the results might look – and what the fallout from those results would be.
It would be unsurprising if the Japanese electorate, many of whom have expressed disapproval of the snap election in opinion polls, were feeling a bit of electoral fatigue by this stage; one number political analysts will be watching closely is turnout, which slid to a post-war low of just 52.66 percent in the last House of Representatives election in 2014. If that trend continues (and the general sense that this election is unnecessary means the smart money is on voters being even more apathetic this time) a turnout figure below the 50 percent line seems perfectly likely.
In general, lower turnout favors the LDP (the key difference between 2009, when the LDP lost power, and 2012, when they returned to power, was not a movement of votes from opposition parties back to the LDP but rather a 10 percent drop in turnout), though it also makes upsets at the level of individual seats more likely due to the smaller numbers of votes required to tip a race. Higher turnout might indicate that for all the disarray and confusion on the opposition benches going into the election campaign, the parties that have emerged – the Hope Party and the Constitutional Democratic Party – have actually managed to excite some floating voters enough to go to the polls, buoying their numbers across the board.
The Liberal Democratic Party (and Komeito)
Short of a polling upset on a level not yet seen in an election of this scale (it would take a far bigger error than the polling misses around Donald Trump’s election or the Brexit referendum), the Liberal Democratic Party and its long-term coalition ally, Komeito, will remain comfortably in power after the election. LDP fears that the Hope Party would repeat its humiliating crushing of LDP candidates in the Tokyo Assembly election have largely dissipated – indeed, some polling is suggesting that the party may actually win more seats than it started with, helped along by strong support numbers and a large number of single-member districts (SMDs) where the main opposition parties (Hope, CDP and Nippon Ishin no Kai) will be competing against one another.
A more realistic reading of the LDP’s prospects would still anticipate the party losing a small number of seats – perhaps just five or six. There are a handful of SMDs where the party is vulnerable to coordination among the opposition parties; the conflict between Hope and CDP makes the outcome of those seats harder to read, but the possibility that Hope will suck away LDP votes as well as some opposition votes cannot be discounted. Overall, Hope and the CDP seem to be a stronger pair of parties than the DP was as a single entity, and it’s to be expected that the LDP’s majority will decline as a result – but only modestly, with the party still commanding a comfortable dominance of the Diet with something like 280 to 285 seats after the election. If the losses are kept to that level, Prime Minister Abe’s position is probably safe for now; any more than that, and rivals within the party will start to sound out support for leadership challenges.
Several wildcards exist which could significantly alter the LDP’s results; one important one is the disposition of Komeito voters. The electoral pact between the LDP and its ally sees Komeito’s voters being instructed to split their ballot between LDP candidates in the single-member districts and Komeito itself in the PR list vote, in return for which the LDP does the same in the small number of districts where Komeito runs SMD candidates. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship that has lasted since the 1990s and is an often underestimated factor in the LDP’s electoral dominance – but it doesn’t always work as smoothly as it sounds.
In 2003 and 2005, large numbers of Komeito voters split their ballots in favor of other candidates, likely reflecting disapproval of then-Prime Minister Koizumi’s policies; while Komeito’s policy interests are generally firmly domestic, the party’s supporters do have “red lines” with regard to military and foreign policy. If they judge the present election to be a referendum of sorts on Prime Minister Abe’s policies in those regards, some Komeito supporters could choose to remind the LDP that their votes are not to be taken for granted.
Seat To Watch: Tokyo 10th District, where the LDP has thrown a lot of resources behind its candidate, Hayato Suzuki, in an effort to unseat Masaru Wakasa who left the LDP to form the Hope Party and remains its de facto leader in the Diet. Tokyo 10 was also Yuriko Koike’s old Diet seat; an LDP victory there would be a psychological hammer blow to the new party, much of whose “hope” is pinned on Koike’s personal popularity.
The Hope Party
Has any party’s support ever surged and then declined as quickly as Yuriko Koike’s Hope Party? It looked like a serious challenger to the LDP when it was launched only a few weeks ago; but it feels like the more the Japanese electorate has seen of the party and its leader, the less they like what they see.
From the will-she, won’t-she drama over whether Koike would leave her post as Tokyo Governor to run for a Diet seat (she ultimately decided not to), through the whiff of underhanded political manipulation in its co-opting of DP candidates and funds for its campaign, to the clown car nature of its policy announcements (“how many more unlikely-looking policies can come tumbling out of the back seat of this kei-truck?”), there’s been little in the party’s stumbling first few weeks to convince people that this party is anything more than naked ambition made flesh.
The speed of the party’s polling decline is reflected in the dramatic difference between its candidate lists (drawn up in more optimistic times, just a few weeks ago) and its likely results. The Hope Party is running 235 candidates (a psychologically important number; 233 is a House of Representatives majority) and contesting 198 SMDs. Present polling, however, suggests that it’s likely to win just shy of 50 seats – meaning that far from being buoyed on a Koike wave, around 10 of the lawmakers who crossed over to Koike’s party are going to lose their seats.
Whether such a result means Yuriko Koike will be a spent force in national politics is hard to say, but it would essentially put her party into exactly the position she’s been trying hard to avoid with some furious backpedalling over the past week – the second-largest opposition party, with a policy platform most voters can’t distinguish from the LDP but sufficient bad blood and rivalry to prevent the otherwise logical LDP merger. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s precisely the position the Japan Innovation Party found itself in a couple of years ago; perhaps it is the inevitable fate of attempts to create conservative opposition forces.
Seat To Watch: If Hope co-founder Masaru Wakasa can’t hold on to his Tokyo 10th District seat, as mentioned above, it almost certainly means it’s going to be a terrible night overall for Hope. A real indicator for where Hope’s votes are coming from, meanwhile, will be Kanagawa 12th District – a three-way race between the LDP incumbent, Tsuyoshi Hoshino, a strong CDP challenger, Tomoko Abe, and a Hope candidate, Tōru Hara. The CDP’s electoral pact with the Japanese Communist Party means there’s no JCP candidate, and those votes should push Abe over the line; what actually happens will depend to a large degree on whether Hara’s vote share, whatever it may be, is drawn from the LDP’s electorate or from former DP voters.
The Constitutional Democratic Party
Losing the Democratic Party leadership race to Seiji Maehara may turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to Yukio Edano’s political career. Formed almost as an act of desperation by the liberal / progressive wing of the Democratic Party after their conservative colleagues departed to run under the Hope banner, his new party, the CDP, has found itself inheriting the mantle of liberal opposition. With that comes a significant amount of civic society activism that has given it a ready-made campaign machine, not to mention relationships with other minority left-wing parties that allowed for rapid electoral coordination to be arranged.
Some polling presently places the CDP’s support ahead of Hope’s (although both trail the LDP massively), and it’s possible that it will be the only party actually picking up seats in this election (which will see the House of Representatives shrink from 475 to 465 seats). The CDP enters the election with just 16 seats; it looks likely to finish with 45 to 50, and it’s a coin-toss whether it will ultimately have a better result than the Hope Party. Even if it falls a couple of seats short of Hope’s total, there’s a good chance that some DP House of Councillors members will join the CDP, making it into the largest opposition force in the Diet.
The two big questions are whether the CDP – a more left-wing but much more ideologically coherent party than the DP – can excite floating voters and drive turnout; and whether it will find its chances either diminished by the Hope Party siphoning off opposition votes, or improved by the Hope Party siphoning off LDP votes.
Seat To Watch: Two Kanto seats will give a fairly reasonable read of the CDP’s performance in this election. The first is party leader Yukio Edano’s seat in Saitama 5th District, where some early polling suggested that LDP challenger Hideki Makihara could be ahead in the race. Other polls give Edano a more comfortable lead; if the CDP doesn’t hold this seat, it’ll be an ignominious start that undermines the positive narrative of recent weeks.
Meanwhile, in Tokyo 1st District, former DPJ party leader Banri Kaieda is standing against LDP incumbent Miki Yamada. After defeating Kaieda in 2012, Yamada extended her lead significantly in 2014 – but unless the Hope candidate, Kaoru Matsuzawa, severely splits the opposition vote, the combination of a less tainted party brand and cooperation with the JCP (whose candidate took over 30,000 votes in 2014) could push Kaieda over the line. If so, it will be a strong indicator that the electoral cooperation between the left-wing parties is working effectively; Tokyo 1st District is far less marginal than several other seats, so a victory here would make CDP gains in other marginals look very likely.
The Japanese Communist Party
Japan’s increasingly misleadingly-named Communist Party has been quietly setting itself up for an electoral breakthrough for several years – building grass-roots support in urban areas and pushing young, highly educated and ambitious candidates to the fore (several of its SMD candidates in this election are in their twenties), hoping to inspire and capitalize upon a surge in the youth vote.
That breakthrough will not, however, be coming in 2017. The JCP’s cooperation with the CDP is likely to help the progressive parties to unseat conservatives, but won’t help the JCP itself, at least in the short term. With the CDP being a much more attractive party for left-wing progressives than the DP was, many votes are actually likely to flow back from the JCP to the more “acceptably mainstream” party, causing the JCP to lose a number (likely six or seven) of its present 21 House of Representatives seats.
For now, the JCP is not in a position to demand the sort of quid pro quo which Komeito gets from the LDP – asking the CDP to stand down in certain seats to allow the JCP to win some SMDs just isn’t on the cards, partially because such a thing isn’t really in the CDP’s gift at present, but also because the JCP retains a tainted brand in the eyes of many older voters (some of whom, to quote a colleague, “talk about them as if we were in 1956 Budapest”). That cohort may tolerate the CDP cooperating with the Communists, but won’t bring themselves to write a JCP candidate’s name on an election ballot. The JCP’s game remains long-term; putting its well-spoken leader Kazuo Shii and its young candidates on the same stage as the CDP helps to emphasize its legitimacy as a regular political party, even if it costs it some seats in the short term.
Seat To Watch: The JCP holds only one SMD seat – Okinawa 1st District – and it’s fighting hard to hold on to it. The LDP has put significant effort into winning back the seat, which is its best chance of winning an Okinawa seat (at present, all four seats in the prefecture are held by the opposition). That’s a big deal because of the ongoing conflict between Okinawa and Tokyo over the relocation of US bases on the islands, as well as the longer-term debate over the extent of the burden of the U.S.-Japan military alliance which Okinawa presently shoulders; having the islands vote in an LDP lawmaker would improve the optics for the government significantly, which makes the JCP’s seat there into a major target. Holding the seat would be a significant moral victory for the JCP, which had never held an SMD seat before winning there in 2014.
Nippon Ishin no Kai
Finally, Nippon Ishin no Kai – a party with striking parallels to the Hope Party, in that it’s another broadly populist, regional party that’s headed up by a prefectural governor (Osaka governor Ichirō Matsui) who isn’t personally standing for a Diet seat. Ishin is less ambitious than the Hope Party, with just 52 candidates standing, and the polls suggest it won’t gain or lose much ground in the election – it presently has 14 lawmakers in the House of Representatives and will end up with 14 to 16, most likely.
One fly in the ointment is that Hope and Ishin, with broadly similar political positions and appeal, have not really managed to hammer out an effective electoral cooperation pact – they’re avoiding one another’s home prefectures (Ishin is standing no candidates in Tokyo, while Hope stands none in Osaka) but are in direct competition with one another elsewhere, including right next door to those home prefectures (Ishin has candidates in Chiba, Saitama and Kanagawa; Hope candidates are standing in Hyogo, Kyoto and Nara).
Seat to Watch: Osaka prefecture’s seats are mostly a straight fight between Ishin and the LDP/Komeito, with one exception – the now CDP-held Osaka 10th District. Incumbent Kiyomi Tsujimoto has a decent lead over her LDP and Ishin challengers, but nobody yet knows how the old DP vote share will split; if a significant proportion of former DP voters are uncomfortable with the more left-wing CDP, it could push votes to Ishin and allow them to pick up the seat. That could hint at Ishin being competitive in a number of other Kansai seats where former DP votes would push them past their LDP rivals – but the ideological distance between the former DP and Ishin is arguably far greater than the distance between the former DP and current Ishin, making this scenario seem unlikely.
Disclosure: Paul Nadeau, an editor at Tokyo Review, is currently employed as a private secretary for Tsuyoshi Hoshino (mentioned above) and is actively involved in his re-election campaign. His only involvement with this article was copyediting for style and grammar; he was not involved in the content of this piece. As always, the views expressed are those of the author alone.
Explore more of our Election 2017 coverage:
- Abe's Election Win Changes Nothing
- In Praise of Japan's Election Campaigns
- Election 2017: Possible Outcomes
- Saving Japan's Liberal Political Project
- The Unwanted Election's Silver Lining