Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida points to his party's strong performance at Sunday's polls. Photo: Screengrab / Getty

TOKYO – Following Japan’s 2021 general election on Sunday, the country will be extending its course as a “one-party democracy” for yet another four years.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)-led coalition beat expectations to win a comfortable majority in the powerful Lower House of the Diet.

That gives him the numbers to do pretty well what he wants – if he can decide what to do, that is. Having only come to power on October 4, Kishida has had little chance to add detail to his broad policy pronouncements. So, much remains to be seen.

Given that both polls and pundits had anticipated a worse result, Kishida claimed the better-than-expected victory as a mandate – even though his party lost seats.

Moreover, the election saw widespread political apathy among the public: Only an estimated 56% of voters voted, the third-lowest turnout since World War II.

Still, Kishida’s decision to hold the election just weeks after he took office now looks like the right move: the ruling party almost certainly benefited from a dramatic downturn in Covid-19 cases over the last month. 

The main leftist opposition, the Constitutional Democratic Party, failed to get their message out. Long-term also-rans, Japan’s number-two party lost seats and are looking more ineffectual than ever.

Quo vadis, Japanese left wing?

For oppositionists, the long, long run of electoral defeats is almost embarrassing.

The LDP has held power almost continuously since its foundation in 1955. It was only put out to pasture between 1993 and 1994, then once again between 2009 and 2012. Since 2012, the LDP has held firm – a status it solidified on Sunday.

The LDP has had a near-unbroken record of election wins since 1955. Photo: AFP / Takuya Matsumoto / The Yomiuri Shimbun

The opposition has some excuses. 

Koichi Nakano, a professor of Japanese politics at Sophia University notes: “The opposition camp had no time or opportunity to be taken seriously by the people as they only had 17 days of campaigning after a whole month of media blitz by the LDP for its internal presidential race,” he said, a reference to the intra-LDP battle to replace the former and colorless incumbent, Yoshihide Suga.

“As a result, only 56% of the people voted,” he added.

There was one major surprise: The emergence of the far-right libertarian party, Isshin No Kai (Japan Innovation Party), which tripled their seats in the chamber to 41, making them the third-largest party. The party is ideologically close to the ruling LDP – which encompasses a wide range of conservative opinion – but further to the right. 

De facto, Sunday’s election indicates that Japan’s public is shifting rightward in its preferences. There is certainly trepidation about the rising regional assertiveness of China, and fatigue with South Korea’s endless prods and pokes about history.

But it may also indicate that the JIP was simply a well-placed vessel for voters disgruntled with both the long-term ruling party and the ever-losing opposition. 

LDP rampant, CDP drooping

In the 465-seat lower chamber of the Diet, the LDP won 261 seats, which gives them what is widely dubbed in Japan an “absolute stable majority.”

While 233 seats would be a mathematical win, the number of seats required for full control of the Lower House without other support is exactly 261 seats.

That magic number means that the ruling party has a monopoly on the chairmanship of the 17 standing committees and can secure a majority of the committee members. The LDP can pass bills with only members of its own party, and without the decision of the committee chairmen who take a neutral position.

A signboard for the LDP presidential election is displayed in September 21, 2021. The battle for LDP leadership drew attention away from the opposition. Photo: AFP / Masanori Genko / The Yomiuri Shimbun

It is not a precarious number. Yes, a few votes of dissent in the party or a by-election loss could derail plans – but thanks to the LDP’s coalition with Buddhist party Komeito, with its 32 seats, no obstacles are in sight.

So: Four more years of the same. 

Toshiaki Endo, chairman of the LDP election campaign committee, said on Fuji TV on Monday morning: “I thought it would be difficult… so I am very happy….I think Prime Minister Kishida has gained the trust of the people, because he seems steady.” 

The CDP, the second-largest party, had embarked on a bold strategy of cooperating with other political parties, including the Communist Party. Yet it is now weaker than previously. It now occupies just 96 seats, having lost 13 seats from its pre-election tally. 

Within and without the party, there is pressure for Yukio Edano to resign as party leader.

His strategy of not diluting the opposition vote by fielding single candidates in over 200 districts clearly failed to significantly dent support for the ruling coalition – and may have offered them a useful weapon.

‘Red card’ for a ‘B-team player’

Many are asking why the opposition was humiliated once more. One possible reason: “The Red Card.” 

Jeff Kingston, an observer of Japanese politics and author of Contemporary Japan, who had predicted that the LDP coalition would keep their majority, felt that the CDPJ alliance with Japan’s Communist Party backfired. That allowed the LDP to portray the alliance as a covert communist takeover and engage in gleeful fear-mongering.

“Yes, we still have a ‘one-party democracy’ in Japan,” Kingston said. “The opposition could not capitalize on the LDPs vulnerabilities and still operates under the clouds of their 2009-2012 reign.”

The Democratic Party, the predecessor of the CDP, was characterized by in-fighting, flip-flops on key policies, financial scandals and three changes of prime minister.

The Democratic Party, the predecessor of the CDP, was in power at the time of the nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant. Photo: AFP / Yomiuri Shimbun

Worse, they were unlucky to be at the helm when the Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami struck, followed by a nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant. Many still remember Edano telling the public that “there was no meltdown” at Fukushima.

“The voters see the CDPJ as a B-team player and so the LDP, with all its flaws, enjoys more credibility,” Kingston said. “It’s hard to see a hopeful path for the CPD. I would expect to see more infighting and regrets about collaborating with the JCP. It seems to have backfired as the LDP revved up red-baiting.”

How to rule forever

On one hand, the strength of the LDP may reflect a right-wing shift in Japanese thinking. It is also a force for stability – and many wonks in Washington may be applauding a result that looks set to keep their leading Asian ally firmly onside.

On the other hand, the lack of an effective opposition may be seen as degrading Japan’s democracy. And some suggest that the playing field has been tilted.

“I think it’s time to finally face up to the fact that there’s no level playing field in Japan, and that the LDP can keep mobilizing all the resources and advantages it has to perpetuate its power,” said Nakano. “The cost of that is that Japan is slowly stifled to death by an utter lack of competition, diversity, and renewal.” 

When Shinzo Abe took his second turn at bat as prime minister, he had learned from prior mistakes. He wined and dined the press, gaining favorable coverage, and ruthlessly hounded critics – even getting several newscasters fired for critical remarks.

With Yoshihide Suga as his hard-hitting number two, he turned on Japan’s media. At one point, the minister of communications warned television stations that those that aired “unfair coverage” of the LDP might lose their broadcasting licenses. 

Japan’s press freedom ranking, #11 in the world in 2010, now hovers in Tanzania’s range. All attempts at electoral reform were also crushed. 

Fumio Kishida has made an enemy of ex-prime minister and current power broker Shinzo Abe. Photo: AFP / Kunihiko Miura / The Yomiuri Shimbun

The creation of the Cabinet Personnel Office in 2014 tamed the bureaucracy by giving the LDP control of all top appointments in the civil service. Abe exerted control over even the Ministry of Justice, trying to hand-pick the top prosecutor to make sure that he wouldn’t be investigated for suspected crimes.

That resulted in one of several political scandals.  Last year, the media reluctantly began to report on the “Akagi File” – documents that shed light on a high-profile record-tampering scandal involving the Finance Ministry, Abe and his wife. 

But there are now few checks and balances in place. The media in Japan is easily manipulated and even the prosecutor’s office has been tainted by the Cabinet Personnel Bureau. 

“Without some serious rethinking in the electoral system, campaign rules, and media constraints, the iron grip of the elderly men and dynastic princelings cannot be broken,” said Nakano of the LDP power players.

The shifting right wing

Yet, movement appears to be underway within the long moribund right.  

Where the JIP and LDP faced off in 19 election districts, the JIP won in 15. They have enough seats now to submit legislation on their own. And if Komeito waffles on some matters with the LDP – such as the hot-button issue of constitutional reform, granting the Self Defense Forces wider operational guidelines – JIP may replace Komeito as the alliance partner for the LDP. 

“Komeito is a little to the left and soft on constitutional change,” an Upper House member of the LDP told Asia Times. “The JIP and the LDP are very close on many issues. I wouldn’t be surprised to see us switch out coalition partners.”

Komeito waffles on some matters with the LDP such as granting the Self Defense Forces wider operational guidelines. Credit: JASDF.

That drastic solution would leave the Buddhist Party out in the cold. 

“Komeito really doesn’t have a choice,” the source said. “They can’t do anything on their own – and they’re hardly going to ally themselves with the CPDJ.”

Another development may offer anti-conservatives some comfort in Sunday’s results.

Many have branded Kishida a puppet of the three most powerful players in the LDP: Japan’s longest-reigning prime minister, Abe; another former prime minister, Taro Aso; and the scandal-plagued Akira Amari, the latest party secretary-general. 

But the so-called “3A” lost considerable luster on Sunday. The three cheered on 69 LDP candidates; 40 of them lost. As a result, some party insiders are now calling them the “3 Jinxes” And Amari, having lost his seat, may very well resign, though he could feasibly take a proportional representation seat.

An erosion in the power of these warhorses may be welcomed by many. But regardless, the LDP as a party is going nowhere.

So what does all this mean for Japan and the world? 

All indications are that Tokyo will stay strongly linked to Washington, and the stirrings of a pro-Taipei policy will continue.

Likewise, the increasing presence of expeditionary forces in Japan’s Self Defense Force – the stand up of a marine arm, the deployment of the first aircraft carrier since 1945, the increased training with other forces from the US, Europe and Australia – will likely continue.

These issues will not please China. However, China’s status as Japan’s main trade partner will need to be encompassed within Tokyo’s real-politicking.

But there is – maybe, just maybe – one surprise wild card: Kishida himself. 

He is not known as a hawk or a hardline rightist, and has said he will pursue liberal policies to bridge the disparity between rich and poor. If Kishida has truly escaped the shadow of the “3A”, the prime minister may surprise everyone.