Election 2021

Japan’s General Election: A Primer

On October 31, Japanese voters will elect the 49th House of Representatives after the Diet’s first full four year-term in 45 years. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Komeito coalition will contest the general election under Kishida Fumio who has been in the prime minister’s seat less than one month. With Kishida scoring some of the lowest initial approval ratings for a prime minister in a decade, and the opposition highly coordinated, the election could be surprisingly competitive.

After the Diet officially endorsed his premiership on October 5, Prime Minister Kishida went straight into campaign mode by appointing a cabinet with 13 new faces, notably managing to move aside nine-year Minister of Finance Aso Taro from his ministerial portfolio and his role as deputy prime minister. Seeking to take advantage of his administration’s honeymoon period and the current, vaccination-driven downward trend in COVID-19 infections, Kishida wasted little time in then calling a general election for the end of October. 

Public Opinion and the Kishida Cabinet

Throughout the LDP leadership race, Kishida promised LDP reform and refreshed national leadership that would be more sensitive to the societal inequalities and insecurities revealed by COVID-19 following public displeasure with the government’s pandemic response since early 2020 (Figure 1). Given the first round of media surveys, Kishida’s promises have not been entirely convincing. Initial cabinet ratings for Kishida were on average 14 percentage points less positive compared to Suga’s (Figure 2).  In the eyes of the public, Kishida was clearly the ‘establishment’ candidate with strong ties to past administrations: Motegi Toshimitsu is now serving as Minister of Foreign Affairs under his third consecutive prime minister, former prime minister Abe Shinzō’s brother Kishi Nobuo remained Minister of Defense, Kishida nominated Abe’s ally Amari Akira to the highly coveted LDP Secretary General role, and even the new face at Finance was Asō’s brother-in-law.

Accordingly, an emphatic 74 percent of respondents to the early October Kyodo News survey indicated that they thought Kishida’s cabinet appointments were made out of factional considerations rather than merit (19 percent). Yomiuri Shimbun and TBS found 48 percent and 58 percent of survey respondents flatly disapproved of Amari’s appointment (30 percent and 21 percent in favor), while only 22 percent of Mainichi Shimbun survey respondents were positive towards Amari’s appointment, suspecting it would elevate the influence of former prime ministers Abe and Asō on the government (59 percent saw this development negatively).

While worse than the LDP might have expected following Kishida’s election as LDP president, his initial cabinet support rates are nevertheless robust – not all that much behind Abe when he began his second term in 2012 (Figure 2) and better than when Abe dissolved parliament for  general elections in 2014 and 2017. However, improved coordination between the left-leaning opposition presents a problem for Kishida that Abe did not have to face in 2017 when Koike Yuriko’s ‘Party of Hope’ (Kibō no Tō), ostensibly formed to challenge the prime minister, fizzled out and ended up splintering the opposition to the LDP’s advantage.

In 2017, opposition parties ended up running overlapping candidates in 226 out of 289 single member districts (SMDs). Unsurprisingly, the coordinated LDP and Komeito candidates prevailed in 183 of these districts (80 percent). The Asahi Shimbun later noted that coordination between the left-leaning opposition could have increased its success rate from 20 percent to 47 percent in these districts, pushing it over 200 seats in the 465-seat parliament, costing the LDP its simple majority, making it even more dependent on coalition partner Komeito, and depriving the coalition of complete control over standing parliamentary committees.

Towards a Revived Opposition?

The opposition appears to have learnt its lesson. Four parties, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ), the Japan Communist Party (JCP), Social Democratic Party (SDP) and Reiwa Shinsengumi, have so far successfully coordinated a single candidate in over 200 SMDs and are looking to coordinate more by the start of campaigning on October 19. With the less publicly popular candidate prevailing in the LDP leadership race, the opposition believes it has a chance to make big gains. CDPJ leader Edano Yukio even put the chances of an opposition victory at the same as Shohei Ohtani’s 2021 MLB batting average: a robust 0.257.

This is probably far too optimistic. While coordination has certainly improved, it’s no certainty that those who voted for one of the opposition parties in 2017 will automatically vote for a SMD candidate backed by a CPDJ-JCP alignment—or even vote at all. Former Hope voters and potential voters for the Democratic Party for the People (Kokumin-minshutō) formed out of the splintering of the Democratic Party (Minshintō) and independents in 2017 are not necessarily left-leaning. Furthermore, they could even be put off by the CDPJ’s more explicit alignment with the JCP, a line of attack the LDP has certainly not shied away from. Based on data from the 2017 UTokyo-Asahi Voter Survey, 42 percent of respondents who voted for the Party of Hope in SMDs in 2017 had voted for either the LDP, Komeito, or Ishin in the House of Councillors’ proportional representation (PR) districts in 2016 (Figure 3). Furthermore, looking at the 57 SMDs where a singular opposition candidate went one-on-one with a government candidate in 2017, the opposition won 18 seats—a more modest 31.6 percent success rate. It also matches the outcomes of the successful cases of coordination in 2016 and 2019 House of Councillors elections where the opposition won 11 out of 32 and 10 out of 32 SMDs respectively, after only winning 2 out of 31 SMDs in 2013. 

Furthermore, the Hope-infused opposition arguably over-performed in the proportional representation (PR) section of the 2017 election, getting around 45 percent of the votes—roughly the same as the LDP and Komeito ruling coalition. However, the UTokyo-Asahi Voter Survey showed that a majority of respondents who gave their PR vote to Hope in 2017 had given their PR district vote to the LDP, Komeito, or Ishin, in 2016 (Figure 3). Party support for the CDPJ has also deteriorated significantly since 2017 (Figure 4). Voting intention surveys suggest that the LDP-Komeito will do better than the coordinated opposition in the proportional representation of the lower house election (Figure 5) even factoring in the customary 10 percentage point bump in PR votes the opposition gets on election day.

Finally, Kishida’s levels of public support seem more robust than they were for Abe in the lead-up to the 2017 election. There is no sign that the public wants the opposition to gain more seats at the election (Figure 6), Kishida’s “PM Premium” is superior to Abe’s, as is Kishida’s rating on the “Majority Risk Index” (explanation here). Furthermore, Kishida heading up the LDP may help keep Komeito voters disciplined due to (perceived) prior affinity between Kishida and Komeito on national security issues and Kishida having expressed interest in welfare and redistribution issues during the LDP leadership campaign. This will be particularly important if the election is characterized by low turnout.

Prospects for the House of Representatives

Though Kishida low balled the definition of “success” by pointing to a the ruling coalition getting a simple majority, such an outcome would deal a major blow to the Kishida administration’s viability with a House of Councillors election eight months later, portending a return to revolving door leadership. Given public opposition to continuing the Abe-Suga policy line (Figure 9)—whatever that might actually mean in practical policy terms—the opposition will focus on painting Kishida as a quintessential member of the “establishment” standing in the way of “political reform” instead of a practitioner of responsive politics that Kishida styled himself as during the LDP leadership race. To that end, initial signs of Kishida backing down from policies that might upset the business community might offer some gaps to exploit.

Driving up turnout will be critical to the opposition’s success. However, with only 12 days of campaigning and having been put on the back foot by Suga’s resignation and the priceless media coverage around the LDP leadership race, the opposition nevertheless has significant work to do to overcome the powerful LDP and Komeito’s electoral “machines”. If there are no major stumbles by the government, the ruling coalition should comfortably hold on to the “absolute stable majority” of 261 seats where they can chair and occupy a majority on all parliamentary standing committees.

The government losing its current supermajority will ultimately mean little if Kishida makes good on his promises of a massive stimulus in the final quarter of 2021 and gets to work on “redistribution of growth” policies ahead of the July 2022 House of Councillors election. This is likely where Kishida’s first true electoral test lies and when we will know whether a return to revolving door premierships in Japan really is on the cards. 

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