Early indications are that Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has won the 2021 general election, albeit with a reduced number of seats. Photo: AFP/Yomiuri / Ryohei Moriya

UPDATED WITH FINAL RESULTS: There were no tricks, but a modest treat for the ruling coalition in Japan’s Halloween election Sunday.

Exit polls late Sunday evening, and most pundit expectations, suggested that the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) coalition, led by newly minted Prime Minster Fumio Kishida, would retain power in the Lower House of the Japanese parliament, known as the Diet, but with losses.

So it proved. In the event, the coalition won a comfortable majority of 293 seats, out of 465.  By simple mathematics, a majority in the chamber is 233 seats.

The Diet is a bicameral legislature, with the Lower House, the House of Representatives, being more powerful than the Upper House, or House of Councilors. The Lower House sits for a four-year term.

Pre-election, the conservative LDP held an absolute majority, occupying 276 seats in the Lower House, while its coalition partner, Buddhist party Komeito, had another 29, granting the coalition 305 seats in total.

On the day, Kishida’s LDP retained a total of 261 seats for an absolute majority, while Komeito gained 32. The leading opposition party, the Constitutional Democratic Party, held 110 seats before Sunday, and saw its share fall to 96 after polls were counted.

Kishida and co exceeded expectations. According to Associated Press in Tokyo, exit polls late Sunday predicted the LDP’s number of seats would be reduced 212-253, with Komeito gaining 27-35.

Talk about a trial by fire. Kishida became leader of the ruling LDP on October 4, well after his hapless and colorless predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, had lost the confidence of both the public and the LDP’s kingmakers.

Suga had previously replaced long-serving prime minister Shinzo Abe, who resigned on grounds of ill health in 2020. Abe is now seen as a key puppet master in the party.

Despite his short term in office, Kishida was constitutionally required to call an election for the Diet by the end of November. He appears to have decided to get the election out of the way with utmost dispatch, perhaps in order to leverage the dwindling post-Olympics feel-good factor and also a tumbling number of Covid-19 cases.

He faced two major questions in the wake of Sunday’s plebiscite. One was how many seats the LDP lost. The second is how effective he is over the next year or so.

Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga arrives at the Prime Minister’s office in Tokyo amid continuing worries over Covid-19. Photo: The Yomiuri Shimbun via AFP / Masanori Genko

The answers to these questions are important, for the LDP is a party of behind-closed-doors bosses who are not reluctant to oust underperformers – as Suga discovered.

One political risk that has been raised in multiple fora is that if Kishida fails to deliver, he will be given the boot as Suga was. That could mean a return to a “revolving door” Japanese premiership – and political inconsistency – which was the case before Abe.

Still, predictability is built into some aspects of the Japanese system.

So entrenched is the conservative LDP, and so divided is the multiparty opposition, that few, if any, pundits had anticipated an opposition victory. Even so, the opposition parties had united by agreeing not to field competing candidates in most seats nationwide.

That made the issues simple for nearly two-thirds of national voters: Thumbs up or thumbs down for the LDP.

The Constitutional Democratic Party has used the short campaigning period to attack the government’s Covid-19 response and the long hangover of Shinzo Abe’s “Abenomics,” that they say has lifted corporate earnings and share prices while worker salaries have flat-lined.

In apparent recognition of this, Kishida has pledged to assist the middle classes to overcome stagnant wage growth with his so-called “new capitalism” concept and stimulus packages.

Voters canvassed by Kyodo News focused on the pandemic and a perceived wealth gap, while voters canvased by Al Jazeera in Tokyo on Sunday were largely focused on Covid-19.

Pandemic and post-pandemic policies represent a double-edged sword for the LDP.

On the one hand, the country’s late vaccination program has finally kicked in, and infections have been dropping in the two months running up to the election. Since suffering 24,023 infections on 27 August, cases had dwindled to 4,284 on Saturday.

On the other hand, though Japan has fared better in numbers of Covid deaths than fellow democracies in North America and Western Europe, it has been less successful, in percentage terms, than some of its nearby neighbors. According to Reuters’ coronavirus data desk, Japan suffered 144.7 deaths per million people, compared to 54.7 for South Korea.

Kyushu University students in Fukuoka City wear face masks, keep social distance and check their body temperatures amid persistent pandemic fears. Photo: AFP/The Yomiuri Shimbun

But this election is an important juncture for the world’s third-largest economy for a far wider range of reasons than Covid-19.

The fast and ongoing silvering of the Japanese population requires smart and far-sighted policy measures. Economic challenges include long-delayed corporate reform and the lack of an eco-system that effectively nurtures world-class entrepreneurs and startups. Another issue is how many more equities and bonds the Bank of Japan and the national pension can realistically digest.

Big questions also hang over Japan’s armed forces in regard to both their capabilities and role. The troops are getting sexy new kit, including F35 stealth fighters and their first, post-1945 aircraft carrier, but face real constitutional restrictions on their freedom of action.

While Tokyo has been wooing Canberra, London and EU capitals, diplomacy in its own neighborhood is off-kilter. Relations with natural ally Seoul are dire, Tokyo has no effective voice toward Pyongyang, and despite the efforts of LDP hawks to create a debate there is no national consensus on policy on Taiwan.

And all of these pale in significance compared to Japan’s biggest foreign policy dilemma: balancing Tokyo’s strategic alliance with Washington and its trade reliance on Beijing.