Lower House dissolved as Japan shifts into election season

The Lower House was dissolved Thursday, marking the first important step toward an election on Oct. 31 in which Prime Minister Fumio Kishida hopes to earn a solid mandate for his policy agenda less than one month since becoming the nation’s leader.

Campaigning for the general election, the first since October 2017, will officially kick off Tuesday and a total of 465 seats will be up for grabs — right now the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito hold 305. The prime minister is aiming to maintain the coalition’s majority, which requires 233 seats. Meanwhile, Akira Amari, the LDP’s secretary-general, indicated in an interview with the Nikkei daily that he hopes to see the ruling coalition capture “a stable majority” of 244 seats.

“We must now ask the people to make a decision,” Kishida told reporters Thursday morning. “It’s a very solemn feeling.

“It has been 11 days since I took office. I have spent those 11 days explaining what this new Cabinet is going to do and I’d like to continue to appeal to the people about what we’re going to do and what we’re aiming for throughout this election.”

The election’s biggest theme will be how constituents evaluate the LDP’s course under Kishida’s predecessors — Yoshihide Suga and Shinzo Abe — and whether they will entrust the party to govern the nation with a recently installed prime minister at the helm. Kishida has laid out his legislative and executive policy goals through speeches and television appearances, but most of them are abstract, and he lacks tangible achievements on which constituents can base a judgment.

Kishida has insisted the LDP has been “reborn” through its leadership election, and he has warned that trust in politics declined under the two previous administrations. Nonetheless, he is struggling to chart his own course independent from those former leaders — especially Abe and his close ally former finance minister Taro Aso, who helped Kishida ascend to the nation’s top office but are seen as party heavyweights representative of the old-school LDP politics that Kishida has pledged to shake up.

Throughout the election period, the party and the public will be scrutinizing whether Kishida is a trustworthy leader capable of not only instilling a sense of political stability but also defining himself politically through his own policies.

Komeito Secretary-General Keiichi Ishii told NHK on Thursday afternoon that only the ruling coalition can overcome the pandemic and revive the economy.

Earlier this week, the LDP laid out campaign pledges that incorporated some of Kishida’s proposals on the economy, COVID-19 and economic security.

The party will call for tax breaks for corporations willing to raise wages, assistance for subcontractors and a review of the cost of public services. On the coronavirus response, it will champion amending legislation so that the government can have greater powers in suppressing foot traffic and procuring medical resources. In the realm of defense, the party will also push for bills on economic security aimed at stopping sensitive technologies from being leaked to other countries.

However, it omitted key measures to bring about Kishida’s “new model of capitalism” — a transition away from the neoliberal economic policies embraced by his predecessors that he had floated during the party’s recent presidential race. This reversal has already raised doubts about his ability to become a strong, independent leader.

Most notably, the manifesto did not include changes to the capital gains tax, something Kishida had identified as one way to generate funds for enhanced wealth redistribution. The prime minister backpedaled after stock prices tumbled in Tokyo.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida delivers his first policy speech at the Diet in Tokyo on Friday. | REUTERS
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida delivers his first policy speech at the Diet in Tokyo on Friday. | REUTERS

“During the nine years of Abenomics, only stock prices have risen and only the retained earnings of some companies have accumulated, while people’s lives have not improved at all,” said Yukio Edando, leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), the nation’s largest opposition group.

“If we are to support the livelihoods of the people, we need to make political change. We need to change these political practices that hide, cheat and fabricate to ones that are reliable and honest.”

Other pledges from Kishida’s leadership campaign were also not reflected: the establishment of a government agency that serves as a command center for dealing with public health crises; the phrase “an income-doubling program for the Reiwa Era” that he had coined; and a plan to assist with educational and residential fees for households with young children.

Instead, the manifesto contained key policy suggestions pushed by Sanae Takaichi, the party’s policy council chairwoman and a rival candidate in the leadership election. Her main proposals — active investment in crisis management and fields with high prospects for growth — were mentioned in the party’s manifesto.

The fact that critical policy proposals from Takaichi were reflected in the campaign pledge highlights a shift in policymaking leadership from the Prime Minister’s Office — the focal point for previous administrations — to within the LDP.

A Lower House election is a crucial moment in Japan’s political calendar because of the chamber’s greater power. Although left-leaning opposition parties such as the CDP and the Japanese Communist Party have looked to shore up their chances in the poll by agreeing to support unified candidates, their approval ratings are significantly lower than the LDP’s even after joining forces.

On Thursday, Abe criticized the cooperation between the CDP and JCP as “collusion only for the election.”

“What is required in politics is to thoroughly protect Japan, protect livelihoods and take responsibility for national security,” Abe said. Noting that the JCP supports jettisoning the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty and regards the Self-Defense Forces as unconstitutional, he added, “If (the CDP and JCP) gain power, I believe that the relationship of trust between Japan and the U.S. will collapse from its very foundation. We cannot allow this kind of administration to take power.”

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and his Cabinet ministers shout banzai cheers after the dissolution of the Lower House was announced at the Diet in Tokyo on Thursday. | REUTERS
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and his Cabinet ministers shout banzai cheers after the dissolution of the Lower House was announced at the Diet in Tokyo on Thursday. | REUTERS

JCP Chairman Kazuo Shii told reporters that the party is not looking to subvert the political system, saying “what we’re going to aim for through a change of administration is bringing back constitutionalism and democracy to Japanese politics, as well as safety and hope to livelihoods.”

The party previously announced it will not join the Cabinet if the CDP takes power but would cooperate with it on certain policies.

But of greater concern to the LDP is a scenario in which conservative voters, a key support base for the party thanks to Abe, may be discouraged from turning out for the party due to Kishida, who belongs to a faction traditionally known for being dovish on defense issues and constitutional amendment. That could see them instead vote for other right-leaning groups, such as Nippon Ishin no Kai or the Democratic Party for the People (DPP).

A Sankei Shimbun poll conducted last weekend showed 39.1% of respondents identified the LDP as their choice for districts using proportional representation, down 5.8 percentage points from September. Among LDP supporters, that dipped from 86.8% last month to 79.2% this month.

Keeping that in mind, Kishida has adjusted his position on certain subjects to appeal to conservatives, such as advocating for constitutional amendment and the strengthening of defense capabilities.

“When I heard Prime Minister Kishida’s policy speech and his answers to my questions (in the Diet), I thought perhaps his reform mindset was weakening,” said Nippon Ishin’s Secretary-General Nobuyuki Baba.

DPP leader Yuichiro Tamaki, meanwhile, rebuked the LDP for dissolving the Lower House for “selfish” reasons.

“Even the specifics of the economic measures (under the Kishida administration) are not clear,” Tamaki said. “I think it remains unclear how (the administration is planning for) an economic recovery and even what it is going to ask of the people.”

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