Japan’s ruling LDP on track for narrow general election victory

Fumio Kishida led the Liberal Democrats to a narrow victory in Japan’s general election despite a backlash against the ruling party’s grip on power that caused its biggest political setback in more than a decade.

The LDP was on Sunday evening on track to retain majority control of the Diet’s lower house, according to state broadcaster NHK, sparing the new prime minister a humiliation that would have jeopardised his leadership.

The races for many of the party’s leading figures were extremely close, a measure of the electorate’s frustration after nearly a decade of LDP rule. Akira Amari, party secretary-general and an architect of Japan’s new “economic security” strategy, was on track to lose his constituency seat, according to early vote tallies.

As of half past midnight, NHK said the LDP had won 246 seats, down from 276 before the election, allowing it to hang on to single-party control of the 465 seat lower house. Coalition partner Komeito took 27 seats, down from 29.

The biggest winner was the centre-right Japan Innovation Party, which more than tripled its representation to 34 seats after an campaign that focused on a push for regulatory reform.

In interviews with Japanese media on Sunday, Kishida stressed that his ruling coalition was certain to hang on to its majority, a low goal set for the general election.

“I think we’ve gained a valuable mandate” from the public, he said. “In terms of the LDP having lost seats, we need to assess and take the outcome seriously.” 

Despite low popular appeal, Kishida won the LDP leadership race in late September by promising stability and appealing to the powerful factions and figures in the party including former prime minister Shinzo Abe.

He dissolved the lower house soon after being appointed prime minister this month, gambling on a quick election win to push through his economic and national security initiatives. 

“He took a strategy that was needed to become prime minister by striking friendly ties with Abe. But he’ll now focus on bringing out his own colours,” said Meiko Nakabayashi, a professor at Waseda University.

Many Japanese sought a clear break after nearly nine years under Abe and his unpopular successor Yoshihide Suga.

But Kishida’s decision to appoint veterans such as Amari to influential roles in government was punished by voters. He also failed to project the promised new image as he seeks to revive a deflation-mired economy that is recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I wanted to change the LDP’s one-party dictatorship,” said Yoshifumi Uchiyama, after he voted for the Democratic Party for the People, a small opposition party, at a polling station in Chiba. The financial services industry worker, 31, voted LDP in the last election.

“Kishida seems like a nice person but fundamentally nothing has changed,” said a 74-year-old housewife at a polling station near Tokyo Bay.

The LDP, along with coalition partner Komeito, have dominated the polls since Abe led the party to a stunning victory in 2012, raising hopes of an economic revival and ending a revolving door of prime ministers.

In this election, however, Japan’s long-fragmented opposition camp displayed a greater sense of unity in a bid to leverage the frustration that has built up over LDP’s long grip on power.

The five opposition parties fielded a single candidate in 213 out of 289 first-past-the-post constituencies. As a result, just 1,051 candidates — the lowest ever — competed for the lower house, including the proportional representation votes.

Yet Masato Kamikubo, a political-science professor at Ritsumeikan University, criticised the opposition for focusing too much on organising unified candidates without having meaningful policy discussions.

Kishida is now expected to travel to the UK to make his world stage debut at the COP26 climate summit, where he will outline how Japan will reach its carbon emissions targets by 2030 and 2050.

He has also placed emphasis on strengthening Japan’s economic security and defence measures given a more assertive China.

But Kishida has yet to spell out how he will break from his predecessors to create a “new form of capitalism” and finance his economic measures to achieve wage rises for all.

Additional reporting by Nobuko Juji in Chiba

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