CRUSHING DEFEAT POSSIBLE FOR RULING PARTY IN UPPER HOUSE ELECTION THIS SUMMER
The triennial election for the Upper House slated for July 10 ought to be a major concern for Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. A total of 125 of the chamber’s 248 seats will be contested. If his ruling Liberal-Democratic Party (LDP) manages to secure a majority in tandem with its junior coalition partner Komeito, Kishida will have three years before the next national election in which to devote himself to implementing the policies he envisions.
To be the Japanese prime minister in today’s dramatically changing world means having to make a historic contribution not just to Japan but the entire international community. One wonders how concretely Kishida is coming to grips with this vital mission.
On January 7, I invited three prominent journalists to my “Genron” prime time Friday Internet TV news show to discuss the Kishida administration and predict how it will fare in the next six months preceding the election. My guests and I unanimously concluded that Kishida has thus far failed to outline a coherent vision for positive change in Japan or the world. Rui Abiru, editorial writer for the conservative daily Sankei Shimbun, described Kishida as “all talk, no action,” Takashi Arimoto, publisher of the conservative Seiron monthly, called him “a politician who is empty in words and deeds.” Political journalist Fumito Ishibashi said Kishida is a prime minister primarily interested in “gaining praise from the Asahi Shimbun,” a left-leaning mass-circulation daily known for its critical views of the government.
Repeatedly stressing the need to honor universal human rights, Kishida instructed his party secretariat on December 17 to withhold a resolution condemning China over its alleged genocide of Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Despite having publicly committed himself in his election pledge in October to enhancing the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) and increasing the 2022 national defense outlay to more than 2% of its GDP in order to cope more effectively with the threat of China, Kishida has since settled for a defense budget showing no major increase from last year. He has also put off a review of legislation to revise the immigration control and refugee recognition law. And he has also failed to clarify Japan’s policy on the capability to attack enemy bases as a means of protection from missile attacks.
An agitated US government reacted by asking that the following passage be included in the joint statement at the end of a virtual US-Japan Security Consultative Committee “2+2” meeting held on January 7: “Japan expressed its resolve to examine all options necessary for national defense, including capabilities to counter missile threats.” Obviously, the US side, represented by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, had Kishida’s references to “enemy base strike capabilities” in mind. Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi attended the meeting from the Japanese side.
A firm resolve to defend Japan and bolster its alliance with the US, diametrically contrasting Kishida’s procrastination, was expressed by his foreign and defense ministers in the statement which also declared: “The ministers expressed their determination to constantly modernize the Alliance and strengthen joint capabilities by fully aligning strategies and prioritizing goals together.”
“Kishida appears to have decided to play it safe in order to avoid friction at home before the Upper House election. He will not touch any bills that would allow the opposition camp to attack him, or the Asahi to be critical of his policies—even the bills that have to do with Japan’s national interests. Try to think that way, and you will come to grips with Kishida’s political style.”
Ishin May Replace Komeito as Coalition Partner
Despite having accomplished nothing particularly noteworthy since coming to power in October, Kishida has enjoyed gradually increasing approval ratings—now over 66%. Why? “Looking back over the political history of this nation,” noted Abiru, “administrations that accomplished less enjoyed higher approval ratings and lasted longer, as was the case with the administration of Eisaku Sato (1964-72).”
On the other hand, Kenta Izumi, newly elected representative of the no. 1 opposition Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP), is feeling deflated. He is gravely alarmed by the possibility of his party winning barely half a dozen seats in the 32 single-seat constituencies in the upcoming election based on the results of the Lower House election last fall. Does that mean another crippling defeat for the CDP in July and another landslide victory for the LDP? “No, that would be too optimistic. A landslide victory for the LDP is absolutely unthinkable,” Ishibashi asserted. He added:
“On January 4, Kishida was in great spirits during a New Year’s news conference at the Ise Shrine. In last year’s election, the LDP he led as a new prime minister won 261 of the 465 seats of the Lower House, garnering 27.6 million votes. The total votes eventually rose to nearly 28 million, including those won by candidates without affiliation who were later recognized as LDP parliamentarians. Kishida won overwhelmingly more votes than former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe garnered in three preceding Lower House elections. These numbers must have given Kishida considerable self-confidence.”
Apparently, Kishida believes he will be able to win the Upper House election for the coalition by avoiding major problems and friction until July and that ahead of him will then be a path wide open to a reasonably long period of stably running the nation. But he would do well to discover the real reason why the LDP fared so impressively last fall despite pre-election pessimism. Didn’t the LDP owe its victory to the conservative voters who had been disgruntled with the ruling party but had no real intention of voting for the CDP or Japan Communist Party (JCP) candidates? These voters developed a sense of crisis as they saw LDP candidates losing in close competition with opposition candidates. That obviously caused them to change their mind and come to the LDP’s rescue by backing its candidates as before. There also were no small number of voters who felt Japan would not be able to survive “should the LDP suffer a crippling defeat, allowing the CDP to score a sweeping victory to run the nation.”
The LDP managed to fight a good fight thanks to eligible voters who mistrusted the CDP and the JCP for forming an electoral alliance. If there had been candidates from Ishin (the Japan Innovation Party) or the Democratic Party for the People (DPFP), conservative voters likely would have voted for them. Solid support for the LDP has been steadily waning over the years.
In light of the conspicuous differences between the LDP and Komeito over national defense and the proposed revision of the “peace” constitution, not a few voters feel the LDP and Ishin would be more compatible as coalition partners and together contribute more to Japan’s national interests. I also feel Ishin is qualified to replace Komeito as a junior coalition partner. Ishibashi had this to say:
“Ishin is a political party formed by former members of the LDP Osaka Prefectural Federation who left the LDP in September 2012 over their support for then Osaka governor Toru Hashimoto. The party has come a long way over these ten years or so. It boasts the largest faction in virtually all of the city councils of the entire prefecture. It takes the same position on most issues as the LDP. In fact, you may call it a second LDP.
“I think Ishin is not happy with the DPFP’s reliance on block votes from Rengo (Japan Trade Union Confederation) and even feels some resentment toward the CDP. Therefore, I believe the LDP should by all means cooperate with Ishin. Should Ishin field candidates in single-seat precincts under an electoral alliance with the DPFP, that would be a major threat to the LDP.”
LDP Candidates in Late Seventies
That would have a devastating effect on the LDP. An important task of the Kishida administration is to immediately start promoting communication with Ishin, but it has yet to do so. Shinzo Abe and Yoshihide Suga would be qualified mediators from the LDP to approach Ishin, but Kishida must first make efforts to mend fences with the two former prime ministers. He then will have to take drastic measures to speedily rectify his party’s election system. News outlets have been reporting who the likely candidates will be in the 32 one-seat precincts. Clearly noticeable among them are LDP candidates in their late 70s. Ishibashi added:
“In the Lower House election, many candidates over 70 years old lost, including former strong man Ichiro Ozawa, who was defeated in his precinct in Iwate Prefecture. I suppose the coming election will be an uphill battle for candidates in their mid-seventies. A case in point is Fisheries and Forestry Minister Jiro Kanekohara from Nagasaki, who is 77. If he wins the next election, he will be in office until he’s 84.”
Former President of the Upper House Masaaki Yamazaki from Fukui Prefecture is 77, while Tetsuro Nomura from Kagoshima Prefecture, elected to the Upper House in 2004, is 78.
In an era with a growing number of centenarians in Japan (86,510 in 2021), it would naturally be unwise to view the mental and physical fitness of senior citizens as a handicap without considering individual differences. But the LDP will have a tough road ahead if it decides to freely allow every senior parliamentarian to run in the next election. With our population decreasing rapidly, single-seat constituencies are on the increase, replacing those with more than two seats. But there are hardly any double-seat constituencies in which the LDP can be safely expected to secure a majority. Ishin, spurred on by its brilliant performance in the last Lower House election (its seats increased from 11 to 41), is determined to go all out to be a disruptive force in the Upper House in July.
Ishibashi warned that the LDP is running the risk of a crippling defeat this summer unless it works out electoral cooperation with Ishin while making every effort to field more appealing candidates. He explained:
“The secret behind the rock-solid backing Shinzo Abe got from his supporters for nearly nine years was that he did his utmost to safeguard the interests of the faithful supporters of his party, who represented some 33% of eligible voters. Abe stood unwaveringly in his conviction that at most 10% of voters were supporting the opposition CDP or Renho. The LDP will be in great danger if it fails to protect its primary power base in its eagerness to go after the remaining 66% or so of voters whose voting habits are highly unpredictable.”
I find Ishibashi’s analysis persuasive. With only half a year left before the Upper House election, I wish to urge Kishida to reflect seriously on what needs to be done to put the LDP in a winning position.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 983 in the January 20, 2022 issue of The Weekly Shincho)