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After nearly two weeks of campaigning in a fiercely contested Lower House election, voters began heading to polls Sunday to deliver their verdict on Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s ability to govern Japan.

Polls opened at 7 a.m. through 8 p.m., with votes set to be counted immediately afterward to determine the winners.

Lower House elections — this one being the first since October 2017 — are seen as crucial moments on Japan’s political calendar because of the chamber’s power to override vetoes by the Upper House. Elections in the lower chamber are also required to be held once every four years, but the prime minister can call snap elections ahead of that schedule.

Key issues in this election include the economy, the coronavirus response and the ruling coalition’s record over its nine-year reign. Although Kishida has laid out several policy goals, most have been abstract. This means the prime minister, who has been in power for less than a month, lacks tangible achievements on which voters can base their decisions.

All 465 seats — 289 single-member districts and 176 elected under proportional representation — will be contested. Before the election, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party had 276 seats and junior coalition partner Komeito occupied 29, while the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) held 110 seats, the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) had 12 and Nippon Ishin no Kai had 11.

One of the key points in the election will be whether the ruling coalition can maintain its pre-election strength of 305 seats. But that appears to be an uphill battle.

The Yomiuri Shimbun and the Nikkei newspaper projected Friday that it remains unclear if the LDP can maintain a simple majority of 233 on its own, meaning the party could lose 36 seats or more. By tying up with Komeito, the coalition is expected to keep a majority and even come within range of a so-called stable majority of 244. This will enable the ruling bloc to smoothly pass legislation in the Lower House, as they will be able to appoint lawmakers as the chairs of all 17 standing committees and occupy more than half of the memberships of all committees.

Voters cast ballots at an early voting location in Tokyo's Minato Ward on Thursday, ahead of Sunday's Lower House election. | BLOOMBERG
Voters cast ballots at an early voting location in Tokyo’s Minato Ward on Thursday, ahead of Sunday’s Lower House election. | BLOOMBERG

If the LDP loses its majority in the Lower House, the Kishida administration would be on shaky ground, making it even more dependent on Komeito and perhaps even forcing it to turn to the right-leaning Nippon Ishin to pass bills and budgets.

Under this scenario, LDP lawmakers would likely become more skeptical of keeping Kishida at the party’s helm, particularly with an Upper House election scheduled for next summer. It’s unlikely, though, that Kishida would immediately be forced to step down as prime minister, given that his fledgling administration was formed just weeks ago.

Another area that will be closely watched is how successful cooperation among opposition parties will be in clinching Lower House seats.

The five left-leaning or centrist opposition parties — the CDP, the JCP, the Democratic Party for the People, the Social Democratic Party and Reiwa Shinsengumi — have fielded unified opposition candidates in more than 210 single-member districts to avoid splitting the opposition vote.

The projections from Friday showed the CDP could be in a position to pick up additional seats, potentially as many as 30 seats, according to the Yomiuri estimation. The JCP is also likely to gain additional seats through proportional representation.

Kishida announced that he would dissolve the House of Representatives on the same day he came to power on Oct. 4. With Lower House lawmakers’ terms approaching their expiration on Oct. 21, the prime minister insisted on holding the election as early as possible to minimize a political vacuum at a time when the nation is reeling from the pandemic and facing growing national security threats from neighboring countries. The Lower House was dissolved on Oct. 14.

A potentially important factor in the outcome is the conspicuous nationwide drop in COVID-19 cases seen in recent weeks.

The LDP’s prospects of winning seats and maintaining a comfortable majority would likely have been diminished in a situation where the daily virus figures were rising again as the country headed into winter, based on trends under the previous administration, which saw the Cabinet’s approval ratings fall as coronavirus cases rose.

But if the prime minister was hoping to take advantage of a honeymoon period, he may have miscalculated. His Cabinet’s approval rating — which has hovered around 49% in NHK opinion polls — has tamped down hopes within the LDP that the party would see a boost from the change in administration.

Kishida replaced Yoshihide Suga, whose approval ratings had plummeted to dangerous levels as Suga struggled to contain record coronavirus numbers over the summer even though the figures were considerably lower than Western countries.

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