A voter casts his ballot for Japan's upper house election at a polling station in Tokyo, Japan July 10, 2016. REUTERS/Issei Kato

TOKYO – Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and his ruling Liberal Democratic Party are facing a spooky Halloween this year as the country heads to the polls in a general election on Sunday.

Few countries have embraced the US-style Halloween tradition as enthusiastically as Japan, a nation with strong customs of local horror tales and a strong yen for dressing up. But while Japan’s horror movies and cosplay elan are world-class, 2021’s All Hallow’s Eve is shaping up to be a scarier night than ever for Kishida and co.

Last Sunday, the LDP-backed candidate in Shizuoka Prefecture lost an Upper House by-election that the ruling party had been widely expected to win. That is not a good omen, but conventional wisdom still has it that the LDP will prevail.

Even so, they could lose a significant number of seats and a significant chunk of power, for the weak and scattered opposition have united and are fielding strong candidates without competing against each other.

Moreover, public support for the ruling coalition – the LDP and its junior partner Komeito, a Buddhist party – is low after a series of corruption scandals, cover-ups and overall poor handling of the coronavirus, while the gap between the rich and the poor continues to widen.

The LDP now enjoys an independent majority in the Lower House of the Japanese Parliament, the Diet. If they lose that majority on Sunday, they may find themselves having to make compromises they would have never considered before.

And the unproven Kishida cabinet – which only took office this month – may be short-lived if election results prove catastrophic for the party. 

Japanese politics: Dummies’ Guide

It is the world’s third-largest economy and a cultural powerhouse, but Japan’s parliamentary system is poorly understood. Here’s a breakdown.

The Diet comprises two chambers, the Lower House, sometimes called the House of Representatives, and the Upper House, also known as the House of Counselors. Legislation has to be approved by both to become law, but in the event of a disagreement, it’s the Lower House that calls the shots.

Technically, Lower House members serve a four-year term, but the prime minister can dissolve the chamber any time he wants. Upper House members, conversely, have a six-year term and are not subject to dissolution.

Kishida took office on October 4 after his under-performing predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, was shown the door by party kingmakers, who saw him as a liability in an election that constitutionally must place before the end of November.

Kishida dissolved the Lower House on October 14. Official campaigning kicked off on October 19.

The House of Representatives has 465 lawmakers. Of those, 289 are elected in single-seat constituencies. Of them, 176 seats are decided through a proportional representation system, determined by votes for political parties not individuals, and divided into 11 blocks nationwide.

Fumio Kishida in the Diet. Though he is not expected to lose, a confluence of factors aligning against him suggest he may not be so happy after Sunday’s Lower House election. Photo: AFP / Masanori Genko / The Yomiuri Shimbun

In practical terms, it works like this. Every participating voter in Japan casts two ballots on the election day for the House of Representatives. One ballot is for an individual candidate, the second for a political party. The parties then appoint a certain number of representatives based on the percentage of votes they receive.

This creates the rather bizarre situation in which someone who loses in a single-seat constituency can still take a seat in the House of Representatives, if their party likes him. (In one of the world’s most gender unequal societies, it is usually a him rather than a her.)

The system was designed to even Japan’s political playing field where areas with low populations have disproportionate voting power, and also ensure minority parties get some representation in government. 

Pleasing the ‘3A’

Traditionally in Japan, when a new prime minister comes to power, there is a celebratory mood and support for the individual – a honeymoon period, in essence. When Suga took over from his long-term predecessor, Shinzo Abe – who stepped down, ostensibly on grounds of ill health – his popularity ratings were as high as 70%, thanks to some shrewd PR moves and widespread public disgust with Abe.

They didn’t last long and Kishida has also been impacted. He took office with a far lower support rate of roughly 48% which has dropped – albeit not precipitously – to 45% in some polls.

He may have been hoping to capitalize on the post-Olympic, post-Suga, end-of-Covid mood to buoy his odds in the election he knew he had to fight. But it is unclear if that mood persists.

During the campaign, Kishida and the LDP appear to have embraced policies proposed by the opposition – including plans to reduce income disparities. Though a moderate right winger, Kishida has made fighting inequality a key electoral priority. He has talked of a “new capitalism” and been critical of Japan’s version of Reaganomics – ie, Abenomics.

Yet he has offered no concrete measures to implement his “new capitalism.”

Another troubling issue for Kishida is that – like Suga – he is widely seen by the public as a puppet of Abe; of another long-term party former Prime Minister Taro Aso; and of the scandal-plagued Akira Amari, the new secretary-general of the Liberal Democratic Party. 

Aso, Abe and Amari, who are referred to as “3A” in Japan, are considered the master power brokers in the current administration. (The “3A” moniker refers to the starting letters of their surnames.) But it is not entirely clear how well these three musketeers get along with each other.

That places Kishida in the uncomfortable position of trying to please all three of them to get things done, resulting in a partie carrée (“a party of four”).

Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe still pulls the strings behind the scenes. Photo: AFP / Franck Robichon

One party to rule them all

A Kyodo news survey released on October 26 indicated that the Liberal Democratic Party has the most public support, 29.9%.

The LDP was founded in 1955 and has only lost power twice. The last time they were booted out of their customary controlling position was from 2009 to 2012 by the predecessor of the largest current opposition party, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan.

Formerly known as the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), the previous government of the CDPJ collapsed in 2012 after policy reversals and failures to deliver promises to voters.

But the CDPJ were also victims of catastrophic bad luck: they found themselves facing a trifecta of an earthquake, a tsunami and a nuclear meltdown in 2011.

Many would place the lack of preparedness for those disasters, especially at the Fukushima nuclear reactor, squarely on the shoulders of the LDP. Even so, the end result is that the CDPJ is still widely seen as incompetent across Japan. 

According to Kyodo, the CDPJ has only about 11.6% of the people backing it – a modest step-up from their previous standing roughly two weeks ago of 9%. 

The small but nimble Komeito, the political arm of Buddhist religious group Soka Gakkai, is the junior partner in the ruling coalition party with the LDP. They are famous for getting their religious followers to get up, go out and vote.

Though only backed by about 5% of the public, they may have the critical number of representatives necessary to pass legislation if the LDP loses big. Komeito also excels at getting Soka Gakkai followers to vote for LDP candidates in areas where their own candidates are not running. 

Currently, 40% of the public says they don’t know which party they will vote for. In times of strife and political dissatisfaction, often those votes go to the Japan Communist Party.

That may sound ominous to many overseas, but in fact, the JCP is essentially a left-wing party, far less extreme than its Soviet predecessor, and an entirely different beast to its nearby counterparts in China and North Korea.

Election officials count votes after Japan’s lower house election at a counting center in Tokyo on October 22, 2017. Photo: Agencies

‘Anyone but the LDP’ vote

Opposition candidates will run in more than 200 constituencies, or approximately 70% of all single-seat districts. Significantly, ahead of Sunday’s battle, all opposition parties, including the JCP, agreed to cooperate and streamline their candidacies. 

This means voters critical of the government can focus on a single opposition candidate in each district, so the “anyone but the LDP” vote is not split. This grants disgruntled voters a single, clear choice. 

So, in this writer’s political district, Tokyo District 8, instead of a field of eight candidates, there are only two real choices: the conservative incumbent (from the LDP) and a liberal challenger (from the CDPJ). The Communist Party agreed with the CDPJ not to field anyone in the district earlier this month.

And unfortunately for the LDP runner, the right-wing Japan Innovation Party has also fielded a candidate, which may split the conservative vote.

The results of the Shizuoka by-election to replace an Upper House member indicate the uneasiness in the ruling coalition. In that race, an LDP veteran lost to an independent.

What scares the hell out of the LDP is that polls found that 70% of floating voters placed a “screw you” vote for the independent – who was backed by both the CDPJ and the minor Democratic Party for the People. 

Professor of Japanese Politics Koichi Nakano at Sophia University notes that the opposition faces steep odds. 

“The fact of the matter is that there simply is no level playing field in Japan that allows opposition parties to have a fair shot at competing for power,” he told Asia Times. “The electoral system, campaign financing, campaign regulations and even the extreme brevity of the electoral campaign period, all work in favor of the huge incumbency advantage that the LDP enjoys.”

And there’s more.

Media bias and big-business support “adds to the plight of the opposition,” he added. “This time, the LDP hijacked the media for a whole month with its internal presidential contest, which all but eliminated the opposition presence in many people’s minds.

“While even that failed to boost the personal support levels of Kishida, it certainly succeeded in boosting the LDP support as the opposition parties continue to stagnate in the polls.”

But this time, the opposition has changed the game.

“The opposition parties, however, have been doing their best not to be pushed out into irrelevance, and most significantly, the main opposition parties managed to unify their candidates in over two-thirds of the single-member districts contested in the election,” he said.

Fumio Kishida and his party look set for victory on Sunday, but the big question is how much support will they get? Photo: AFP / Du Xiaoyi

But even this is unlikely to reward the opposition with victory. The best they can hope for, he reckons, is that they now “have a much better chance to make a serious dent in the LDP share of the seats.” 

Jeff Kingston, an observer of Japanese politics and author of the seminal textbook Contemporary Japan, agrees.

His take: “The LDP will lose some seats but will retain its majority. Kishida looks more and more like Abe’s puppet and has pirouetted away from his signature policies on redistribution after winning the LDP presidency. He repudiated Abenomics as welfare for the rich but has been reined in by Abe and retreated from tax increases.”

Kingston notes that Kishida does not present well as a leader. “He is gormless and lacks any charisma,” Kingston said. “He’s a boring set of safe hands.”

This charisma bypass does not necessarily endanger his party’s grip on power.

He still has “enough to win the election,” Kingston said. “He can also count on voter apathy to limit opposition gains, despite better cooperation on backing a unified slate of candidates.”

The challenges ahead

The key battleground would appear not to be whether the mighty LDP will be overthrown, but how many seats they will lose.  By late Sunday, the opposition parties should know whether they have gained enough bargaining power to seriously joust with the LDP in the Diet.

And thereby hang multiple issues.

Will the LDP be disempowered enough to lose policymaking power? If Kishida proves as hapless as his predecessor Suga, will he, too, be ousted in an internal coup and Japan returns to its revolving door system of prime ministers?

These are all important issues, for both Japan and Japan Inc need sound political steering.

Can Tokyo reform its moribund corporate sector? How much more debt can the country’s central bank and pension fund realistically swallow? And what effective policies can be implemented to deal with the fast-moving “silvering” of the Japanese population?

Foreign policy is not usually an electoral combat zone, but it is looming ever-larger over the Japanese polity.

Will the country accelerate or decelerate its growing defense heft, and can it realistically expand security partnerships with distant democracies? Can it repair relations with South Korea and realistically relieve Chinese pressure on Taiwan?

Above all, in the big picture global competition in our era, how far will it go to placate strategy ally the United States at the expense of its relations with leading trade partner China?

These are the questions for now. On Sunday, it’s “trick or treat” for the Japanese electorate.