Sano Kentaro on the outcome of the 2021 Lower House election
The 2021 Lower House election held on October 31, 2021 resulted in a majority win by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) which secured 261 seats, upending pre-election predictions of a significant loss of seats. Of the 465 seats in the Lower House, 289 seats are held by single-seat districts and 176 are allocated by proportional representation. Prior to the election, there were 461 seats and 4 vacancies, with 305 seats held by the ruling coalition (LDP 276, Komeito 29) and 156 seats held by opposition parties (see Table). In the election the ruling coalition won 293 seats (LDP 261, Komeito 32) and lost 12 seats, while opposition parties won 172 seats. This means that the ruling coalition is now able to run a stable administration and parliament.
The leading opposition party of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ), along with the Japanese Communist Party (JCP), the Democratic Party for the People (DPP), the Reiwa Shinsengumi (Reiwa), and the Social Democratic Party of Japan (SDPJ) were expected to increase their seats by a large margin by unifying candidates in 210 constituencies. However, the CDPJ lost 96 seats, down from 109 before the election. Among the opposition parties, the Japan Innovation Party (JIP), which has called for fair and impartial policy making with the ruling coalition, increased its seats four-fold, from 11 to 41. While the outcome of the election ultimately confirmed the strength of the LDP, this could lead to a two-party era in which the LDP and opposition parties led by the JIP compete for power on policy, even if the advances made by the JIP are limited to decisive action on reforms in Osaka City and Osaka Prefecture.
In the LDP presidential election following the mid-term resignation of Prime Minister Abe Shinzo in August 2020, then Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide was elected LDP president and assumed the position of prime minister. Although there was talk of an immediate dissolution of the Lower House and a general election, Prime Minister Suga focused his attention on his own policies, including COVID-19 measures, decarbonization, establishing a Digital Agency, lowering cell phone tariffs, and relieving the financial burden of infertility treatment. However, amid the continued decline in popularity of the Suga Cabinet and with COVID-19 measures still to be evaluated, his term as LDP president and the term of office of members of the House of Representatives were coming to an end. While President Suga showed a willingness to run for re-election as LDP president, he decided not to put forward his candidature for the presidential election, being unaffiliated with any faction and so lacking a party following.
The LDP presidential election held on September 29 was won by former Foreign Minister Kishida Fumio whose policy platform included COVID-19 measures; the appointment of personnel within the party with due consideration for the balance of age, maturity, and youth; and the creation of a “new form of Japanese capitalism” through a virtuous cycle of growth and distribution.
The Kishida Cabinet was inaugurated on October 4. Ten days later, on the 14th, Prime Minister Kishida dissolved the Lower House, officially announcing that a general election would be held on the 19th, with voting to take place on the 31st.
The LDP’s election manifesto is outlined below.
- Protect lives from infectious diseases.
- Rebuild a broad middle class through a new form of capitalism. A sense of security for all generations to be the source of Japan’s vitality.
- Protect agriculture, forestry, and fisheries as the foundation of the nation and position them as growth industries.
- Create a country where dynamic economic activity extends to every corner of the Japanese archipelago.
- Enhance economic security.
- Protect Japan by engaging in resolute foreign policy and strengthening national defense capabilities.
- Education is the foundation of the nation. Aim to strengthen human resources, create a safe and secure country, and build a healthy and prosperous community.
- Aim to revise the Constitution of Japan.
COVID-19 and Public Approval for the Government Response
The general election was held after the COVID-19 pandemic had settled down. The points at issue were the evaluation of COVID-19 measures taken by the Abe and Suga administrations since the last election in 2017, COVID-19 measures taken in the later stages of the pandemic, and economic measures including distribution measures. In short, virtually all the issues were of a domestic nature.
An NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) opinion poll was conducted on October 25, just before the election. In response to the question regarding the extent to which they approved of the measures taken by the ruling coalition in the four years since the previous election, 51% responded “approve” (6% “approve very much” and 45% “approve to some extent”). In contrast, 43% of respondents said they “do not approve” (31% “do not really approve” and 12% “do not approve at all”). Regarding the distribution of seats between the ruling and opposition parties, 24% of respondents said “the ruling coalition should have more seats,” 31% said “opposition parties should have more seats,” and 39% said they were “undecided.”
Further, since Japan has a parliamentary cabinet system, Suga’s decision not to run for the LDP presidency in September meant his resignation as prime minister. An NHK opinion poll in September showed that 55% approved of the outgoing Suga administration (7% “approve very much” and 48% “approve to some extent”), while 41% did not approve (31% “do not really approve” and 10% “do not approve at all”).
The issue of greatest public concern was the COVID-19 measures, specifically the economic stimulus package following the coronavirus pandemic. Dissatisfaction was voiced around the government’s slowness to implement COVID-19 measures over the past two years or so. However, the fifth wave began in late June 2021, peaking on August 20 before starting to decline (see Fig. 1). This was due to the acceleration of vaccination, which was the final step in bringing the pandemic under control.
The evaluation of the government’s COVID-19 measures during that period shifted in line with the curve of the number of new COVID-19 cases. In August, 35% of respondents indicated that they “approve” (3% “approve very much” and 32% “approve to some extent”); in September, those figures had shifted to 43% (5% “approve very much” and 38% “approve to some extent”), and in October to 59% (9% “approve very much” and 50% “approve to some extent”) (see Fig. 2). The same trend was evident with similar surveys carried out by other media.
Even before the election, the CDPJ repeatedly criticized the LDP for failing to change and for being unable to change. However, it was the CDPJ itself that failed to change from its constant attempts to uncover scandals in the LDP. The opposition parties had been unifying their candidates in 213 single-seat districts within 289 constituencies with the aim of achieving a change of government and the JCP decided to cooperate with the government from outside the cabinet when the administration changed. So the opposition parties, led by the CDPJ, pushed for a one-on-one battle with the LDP. However, there is strong public resistance to the JCP. The public always knew that even though the JCP and CDPJ were originally the same opposition party, their views on the Constitution and their stance on diplomacy and security differed greatly. Many saw it as a “coalition” to drive the LDP out of power rather than as a change of government to an anti-LDP administration.
Some independents, who accounted for around 40% of political party supporters and were regarded as key players in the election, showed a tendency to make a decision closer to the election. In the aforementioned NHK opinion poll in October, that rate was 31.4%, compared to 40.2% the previous month. In some constituencies, independents voted for opposition party candidates despite not necessarily being opposition party supporters. Support for the CDPJ, which had hovered around 6% in the NHK opinion poll, rose immediately prior to the election, though only to 8% compared to 38.6% support for the LDP (See Fig. 3). This shift to a decision by independent voters not to vote for the ruling coalition may be reasonably attributed to their disapproval of the ruling coalition’s policies. It is unlikely to be due to support for the policies of the opposition party, in part owing to the lack of regular media focus on the opposition party’s policies. Nevertheless, in terms of the outcome of the election, the opposition party claims to have a certain effect on the LDP candidates, making them suffer for their victory, and says that it will continue cooperating with the LDP on elections, as well as pursuing the LDP’s stance and policies after its election.
The Future of Japan’s Politics
It is now a matter of predicting what direction the two-party system that the public once had high expectations of will take: what kind of reform policies the JIP, which now has more than 20 seats and can submit its own bills to the Diet, will come up with and how it will deal with the ruling coalition on a fair and impartial basis, and what kind of stimulus its activities will have not only on the ruling coalition but also on other opposition parties.
Whether or not this will herald the future of Japan’s politics will depend on the public’s attitude to political participation and the stance of media reporting. Voters call on the government to “Put COVID-19 measures in place!” “Keep your promises!” and “Bring on generational change!”
The Kishida administration will need to produce results in terms of COVID-19 measures, support measures for those who have fallen on hard times during COVID-19, and economic measures. To achieve this, the Kishida administration is expected to pass a supplementary budget to the tune of several trillion yen, including COVID-19 measures, by the end of this year. However, time is running out before the Upper House election next summer. As well as these domestic issues, Japan must clarify its stance in global society and at the same time fulfil its role with regard to issues such as the US-China conflict, supply chains, the changing international situation and security, economic security, and global warming.
Having won the nation’s confidence through the election, Prime Minister Kishida left for the UK on November 2 to attend COP26. To address the diverse issues facing the international community, Prime Minister Kishida must confirm the strong Japan-US alliance through the Japan-US summit meeting at an early stage, thereby consolidating the foothold of his future administration.
SANO Kentaro is a freelance writer.