CEIAS CONSIDERS: Japan at home and abroad post-election

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Did Japanese voters prevent years of political instability?

Despite the expectations of most pundits going into Japan’s general election last weekend, the ruling conservative party, the Liberal Democratic party (LDP), secured a comfortable victory that will be a boost for Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, who called for new elections after taking over the role from his predecessor, Suga Yoshihide, last month. Kishida’s Liberal Democratic party won 261 seats in the 465-member lower house, only slightly down from its pre-election 276 seats. With its junior coalition partner, Komeito, it now commands 293 seats, more than the 261 required for an “absolute stable majority”.

Even more surprisingly, the Constitutional Democratic party (CDP), the biggest opposition group, lost more than a dozen seats. And the right-wing populist Japan Innovation party, a newcomer to Japanese politics and based in the western city of Osaka, quadrupled its presence to 41 seats, becoming the third-biggest party in the lower house.

To unravel the political and geopolitical implications of the election result, CEIAS Considers asked experts what this means going forward and whether the surprising election results have prevented the sort of political instability that many commentators were predicting going into the ballot.


Róbert Vancel

Research fellow at CEIAS

@robert_vancel

After the election of Kishida Fumio as a leader of the LDP, it was speculated how the victory of a candidate who was not so popular among the people, would be reflected in the results in the general election. Kishida, who is perceived as a follower of Abe Shinzo, was less popular among the people than his opponent, Kono Taro. He was described as a boring, uncontroversial, man of compromise. However, the complex internal dynamics worked in the party elections, and Kishida gained the support not only of the party elites but also of a large part of the membership base. (Un)surprisingly, the LDP won the election, winning enough seats not only to form a government but also with Komeitó to smoothly approve legislative proposals. The loss of seats over the other elections can be explained not only by Kishida as the head of the party but by the general decline in the party’s popularity during the difficult period of Suga Yoshihide’s rule.

During the campaign, Kishida issued several striking statements about a better redistribution of wealth, a departure from the neoliberal economy, a hawkish attitude toward China, or criticism of some aspects of Abenomics – one of Abe’s key legacies. It turns out that he will probably back down from some points, or rather transform them into something more passable across individual party factions. In foreign and security policy matters in particular, there is a certain ambivalence when Kishida, who has a reputation for non-conflicting politician, represents the hawkish part of the party and refers to Abe Shinzo, whose big topic was the sensitively perceived constitutional revision. It is clear that Kishida will be able to act relatively confidently in the area of ​​economic security. It won’t be that easy in the matter of increasing defense spending or strengthening the US-Japan alliance. However, Kishida leaves a relatively wide space for maneuver here.

I consider Kishida’s lacklusterness an advantage in stabilizing the political situation in Japan. The ability to find compromises and give way to the demands of party factions is a key feature for keeping support of the LDP. Kishida has every reason to try his own, less “flavored” version of Abe’s period of stability. On the other hand, Kishida, as well as the LDP, needs to realize that the formlessness and inability to deliver clear results are detrimental to the country. I see balancing on this edge as the biggest challenge for Kishida Fumio and LDP. The election results suggest that the LDP continues to have broad public support. However, this may change as long as Japan continues to stagnate.


Takashi Hosoda

Lecturer at Charles University’s Faculty of Social Sciences, and research fellow of Japan Research Center at University of West Bohemia

After the House of Representatives (the lower house of the Diet, 465 seats) election, Kishida Fumio’s coalition cabinet of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the Komeito got 293 seats, thus securing the foundation for stable operation of the lower house. Here, I would like to examine the impact of the election result on Japan’s foreign and security policies.

First, it is unlikely that Japan’s foreign and security policies will change dramatically soon if Komeito functions as a safeguard against LDP’s attempts to change post-WWII “pacifist” principles such as keeping defense spending less than 1% of GDP to contribute to the United States. However, this will depend on whether LDP can secure a single majority in the House of Councilors (the upper house, 245 seats) elections scheduled for next summer (LDP doesn’t have a majority in the house, and coalition with Komeito is essential).

Second, Abe’s diplomacy, which created a unique concept of “Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP)” and made Japan’s contribution and presence visible, is highly regarded, but it was derided as “Kantei (Prime Minister’s Office) diplomacy” because the policymaking was led by Prime Minister’s advisors, rather than ministerial bureaucrats. The Kishida administration, however, has seen a resurgence of the bureaucracy. This means that rather than newly seeking Japan’s strategic autonomy, it is highly likely that Japan will not go beyond the existing path of strengthening the Japan-U.S. alliance (plus Australia, ASEAN, and European partners) to the maximum extent.

Third, the establishment of AUKUS forces Japan, which has been promoting bilateral and trilateral defense cooperation with the U.S. and Australia, to specify what kind of military role Tokyo wants to play and can play in the future, but the coalition government has failed to secure two-thirds of the seats in the House of Representatives (two-thirds of the seats in both houses are required to initiate a constitutional amendment), although the Abe administration changed the interpretation of the Constitution in 2015 to allow the Self-Defense Force to do a variety of actions that had previously been considered taboo. It will also be interesting to see how the Kishida administration will add its own color to Abe’s diplomacy with a global view. PM Kishida, his constituency is Hiroshima, emphasizes Japan’s role for nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament, but at the same time, he opposes the Biden administration’s idea of “no first use of nuclear arms” because it would weaken the function of “nuclear umbrella (Extended Nuclear Deterrence).”

Fourth, as a confrontation between the U.S. and China is becoming a multifaceted and long-term structure, Tokyo needs to toughen its stance toward Beijing to escape from the fear of “abandonment” of the security dilemma in alliance politics, while domestically, stable economic relationship with China is essential for reviving the economy after COVID-19 in super-aged society. In this context, the fact that Nikai Toshihiro, then-Secretary-General of LDP, who exerted his influence in Abe and Suga administrations and led the effort to strengthen relations with China, has effectively lost his position, it will be interesting to see how this will affect Tokyo’s China policy.

In addition to “might-based” China, the security environment surrounding Japan is becoming ever more tense, with North Korea repeatedly conducting missile tests, South Korea’s relations with Japan cooling down due to historical issues, and Russia increasing its joint activities with China. In addition, Japan is required to respond to China and Taiwan’s application to join the CPTPP. The effectiveness of Japan’s foreign and security policy will be determined by the extent to which PM Kishida, who has a reputation for coordinating opinions but lacks charisma, can use his stable base in the Diet to take clear initiative under these circumstances.


Michal Kolmaš

Associate Professor and Chair of Department of Asian Studies at the Metropolitan University Prague, and Visiting Fellow at the University of Massachusetts-Boston

@Michel_Poiccard

The election result, frankly, took me a bit by surprise. There was a general expectation in Japan that the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) would fare worse and that the main opposition – Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP) would fare better. It seemed to go along those lines according to the first exit polls. Some analysts even expected the LDP to lose its majority in the powerful and important lower house of the Japanese Diet. And yet, once the election was over, Fumio Kishida’s party could have easily claimed victory, losing only about 15 seats.

What does it mean for Japanese domestic and foreign policy? First, the results signal the continuation of stability that the leading party has achieved under the former PM Abe Shinzo. There was some unease about Kishida’s leadership potential. In popular polls, his contender for the LDP presidency Kono Taro (who won his constituency in the election) scored better and for many, Kishida’s victory in the September LDP election was not the ideal outcome. He was not given the usual honeymoon period and his ratings were bad right from the outset of his LDP rule. And yet, his smooth-talking, consensus-building approach, and his strong factional support in the party, might well work to bring stability that was threatened after Abe stepped down.

Second, the election continues to signify the inability of the opposition to come up with a relevant alternative to the LDP. The low election turnout signals the continuation of “meh” politics of voters supporting the LDP because of the absence of alternatives. The CDP can hardly cheer its election result. Interestingly, the only opposition party that actually did well in the election is the conservative (far)right party Isshin no kai (Japan Innovation Party). Sweeping through Osaka, Isshin won four times the number of seats compared to the previous election. Isshin’s agenda in many ways follows the LDP’s, such as in its tough stance on China, increasing the defense budget, and in its intent to change the pacifist Constitution. Though the LDP operates in a long-time coalition with a more dovish Sokka Gakkai party Komeito, it will be interesting to observe the lure to cooperate with Isshin no kai that LDP might have.

Third, the election result will not result only in internal stability, but also in the likely stability in Japan’s foreign policy. Kishida was a foreign minister under Abe and although he is generally understood as a more dovish, centrist, and consensual politician, his generally conservative and Abe-ish agenda prior to the election signals that he is not willing to swerve from this trajectory.

If there might be some diversion from Abe’s agenda, we should look for it in Kishida’s economic policies. Prior to the election, he came with a slogan of “New capitalism” (新しい資本主義), which is supposed to prioritize the middle class against large capital-holders. This is, for me, a good agenda, especially given the fact that Japan’s Gini coefficient has been rising since Koizumi Junnichiro’s liberalization reforms, and that Abe’s Abenomics strategy (that targeted big companies) was not translated into significant economic growth or wage rise. It is a question, however, just how much will Kishida be able to put this redistributive strategy into practice. The Japanese influential business community has already exercised significant pressure against it, and Kishida’s proposals (namely the rise in capital gains tax) went swiftly under.


Jan Sýkora

Associate Professor and Head of Japanese Studies at Charles University’s Institute of Asian Studies

Although the ruling LDP lost a considerable amount of seats, the prime minister Kishida Fumio can be satisfied with the final results in Sunday’s general election, since the ruling bloc of LDP and Komeito claimed a comfortable majority of 293 seats in the House of Representatives, which gives them the authority to chair all standing committees and allows them to pass the bills smoothly. Moreover, there are two stabilizing outcomes of the election very important for LDP and for Kishida himself. The first one is the fact that it did not turn out to be an anti-LDP election. Given the coronavirus crisis, given the controversial Tokyo Olympics, given the very low rating of the previous Suga administration, many analysts predicted that the public sentiment might be critical of the existing LDP government, and this prediction did not come true. The second one is that the election proved to be a test of Kishida’s popularity. Many Japanese still recall the times of powerful LDP leaders with strong charisma, such as Koizumi Jun’ichiro or Abe Shinzo, and wondered whether Kishida, who is seen as a rather centrist figure, could lead the party and the country in the oncoming trouble times. This is a great victory for him personally and he can now go into governing Japan with fairly good confidence.

On the other hand, the election brought several significant “surprises” that might turn out to be a source of potential political instability. One is a shocking rise of the Osaka-based Japan Innovation Party (Nippon Ishin no Kai) which became the third strongest party in the Lower House following the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (Rikken minshuto). The emergence of this conservative, right-wing populist party proves that even Japan has not escaped the trend of many advanced democracies, i.e. the decline in popularity of “traditional” political parties in favor of populists. In fact, it may become a great obstacle for the new government, since it will definitely block Kishida’s economic policy based on his idea of “new capitalism” characterized by narrowing the gap between rich and poor. The other one is the loss by the LDP Secretary-General Amari Akira in his electoral district. The failure of the former Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry may weaken Kishida’s position within the LDP and complicate the implementation of his economic policy.

  • David Hutt is a journalist based in the Czech Republic focusing on Europe-Asia relations. He previously reported from Southeast Asia. He is the Southeast Asia Columnist at the Diplomat and a correspondent for Asia Times. He also writes the newsletter Watching Europe In Southeast Asia, which provides analysis and forecasts on EU-ASEAN relations.