Election preview: Japan

Japan goes to the polls on Sunday, with prime minister Fumio Kishida, who took office earlier this month after being elected the new leader of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), seeking a new four-year term. There’s very little doubt that he’ll get it, although on past form he may well not serve all of it himself.

The current parliament is the first to have run its full term since 2009, when the LDP suffered a crushing defeat. It returned to government, however, in 2012, and secured further decisive victories in 2014 and 2017. Each time it was helped considerably by the electoral system, which disproportionately weights the votes from the rural areas that are its stronghold. (You can read my preview of the 2017 election here.)

There are both proportional and constituency seats. Four years ago, the LDP (then led by Shinzō Abe) won 33.3% of the proportional vote; its coalition partner, Komeito, had another 12.5%. That gave them 87 of the 176 proportional seats between them – not quite a majority. But the LDP cleaned up in the constituency seats, winning 47.8% of the vote there and 218 of the 289 seats, plus another eight for Komeito.*

So the government emerged with a large majority, 313 of the 465 seats. The main opposition party, the Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP; centre-left), won 55 seats and the conservative Party of Hope 50, from 19.9% and 17.4% of the vote (based on the proportional vote) respectively. Back in single digits were the Communists (7.9% and 12 seats) and the right-wing populist Ishin, or Japan Innovation Party (6.1% and 11 seats).

Since then there has been some rearrangement among the opposition parties, a regular feature of Japanese politics. The Party of Hope has disappeared, most of its members being absorbed into the CDP and some into a new centre-right party, the Democratic Party for the People. The Social Democratic Party, descendant of the once-powerful Japan Socialist Party, also voted to merge with the CDP, although a rump remains under the existing name. There is also a new left-wing party, Reiwa Shinsengumi.

Given the size of its victory last time, it’s expected that the LDP will go backwards, and there are indications that the opposition will do a better job this time of pooling its vote in the right places to win single-member seats. Polls also show a large number of voters still undecided, although this is normal with Japanese polling. There is certainly no sign that the new prime minister is enjoying much of a honeymoon period.

But with all that said, the government’s advantages are huge. The LDP is polling close to the 40% mark, plus another few per cent to Komeito, while the CDP is struggling to reach double figure. Ishin and the Communists are both further back, and no-one else seems to be making an impact at all. Despite many criticisms of the government’s handling of the pandemic, incumbency is still a benefit in time of crisis, and Japan’s experience of the last two years has been better than most.

Realistically, the question is not whether the government will be returned, but how serious a drop in support it will suffer. If the setback is severe, and particularly if the LDP is forced to rely on Komeito for its lower house majority, then Kishida is most unlikely to survive for a full term. If it comes through mostly unscathed his prospects will be much brighter, although like his predecessors he will have to work to stay at the top of his heavily factionalised party.

While it’s easy to criticise Japanese democracy – malapportionment, low turnout (only 53.7% in 2017) and some of the atmosphere of a one-party state – the LDP’s record remains an impressive one. But a stronger and more credible opposition would probably benefit it as well as the country.

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* Different authorities give slightly different totals; I’m using Wikipedia’s figures, which seem to be the most comprehensive.

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