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The ruling Liberal Democratic Party retained a comfortable majority in the Lower House election on Sunday, winning 259 seats and securing a satisfactory outcome for Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in his first major test as leader.

Together with coalition ally Komeito’s 32 seats, the ruling bloc clinched 291 seats — less than the 305 seats it had before the election but still enough to pass bills smoothly in the House of Representatives.

The LDP-Komeito coalition secured an “absolute stable majority” of 261 seats, which gives them authority to chair all standing committees and allows ruling coalition lawmakers to make up the majority of the members on those committees.

Voter turnout was estimated to be around 56%, the third lowest turnout in the postwar era.

It wasn’t all good news for the ruling bloc, however. LDP Secretary-General Akira Amari lost his Kanagawa No. 13 electoral district seat to a Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) candidate — the first time the party’s secretary-general has ever lost a constituency seat. Amari ultimately returns to the Lower House due to his proportional representation ranking, but he told Kishida he was prepared to step down from the party’s No. 2 post.

Voters queue up inside a polling station in Tokyo on Sunday. | AFP-JIJI
Voters queue up inside a polling station in Tokyo on Sunday. | AFP-JIJI

In another upset, party veteran Nobuteru Ishihara lost in the Tokyo No. 8 district, where he was defeated by a unified candidate backed by the opposition.

Nonetheless, Kishida stressed that the ruling coalition had earned a mandate from the public.

“Lower House elections are always elections to choose a governing party,” Kishida told NHK. “If the ruling coalition has ensured a majority, I would take it as a vote of confidence.”

Still, he acknowledged unified opposition candidates posed challenges for LDP candidates in single-seat constituencies.

Meanwhile, it wasn’t a happy night for the CDP, which saw its seats fall to 96 from a pre-election strength of 109.

“Since the single-seat constituency system is based on creating a structure for a one-on-one fight, we as the largest opposition party have solicited understanding and cooperation from other opposition parties as we determine it is the goal we should be striving for,” CDP leader Yukio Edano told NHK. “As a result, we were able to bring the election to a close race in many constituencies, so I believe (unifying the opposition candidates) was effective to a certain degree.”

Edano said the party will demand the LDP and Komeito listen to the opposition’s arguments and to run Diet affairs “with civility.”

CDP Vice President Kiyomi Tsujimoto lost her Osaka No. 10 district seat and was unable to return to parliament through proportional representation.

CDP bigwig Ichiro Ozawa, known as the “shadow shogun,” was also defeated in his electoral district seat in Iwate Prefecture. Ozawa, however, retains his place in the Lower House through proportional representation and returns to the legislature for the 18th time.

A notable change in this election is the remarkable rise of right-leaning Nippon Ishin no Kai as a “third pole,” with the group becoming a favorite pick for voters dissatisfied with both the ruling coalition and left-leaning opposition parties. Nippon Ishin won 41 seats, an almost fourfold increase from its tally before the election, which was 11. The party, which originated in Osaka and is run by Osaka Mayor Ichiro Matsui, apparently gave a strong showing in the western prefecture.

The party fielded 94 candidates nationwide, an increase of more than 40 compared with the last general election in 2017.

Voters fill in their ballots at a polling station in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward on Sunday. | BLOOMBERG
Voters fill in their ballots at a polling station in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward on Sunday. | BLOOMBERG

According to Kyodo’s exit poll, among those who identified themselves as nonaffiliated voters, 24% backed the CDP under the proportional representation system, in which voters cast their ballot for a party, while 20% voted for Nippon Ishin and 17% the LDP.

It also indicated that perceptions of the government’s coronavirus response had a clear impact on how voters made their decision. Among those who voted for the LDP under proportional representation, 78% viewed the government’s COVID-19 measures favorably, while 61% of those who voted for the CDP viewed them poorly.

Despite a better-than-projected performance at the polls on Sunday, the road ahead for Kishida is expected to be difficult.

The ruling coalition’s total number of seats will decrease from 305, forcing the two ruling parties to work even more closely to smoothly pass bills and budgets. They may be tempted to put issues where their policies diverge, including defense and constitutional amendment, on the back burner to avoid any internal fallout, which could leave conservative lawmakers in the LDP dissatisfied with Kishida’s leadership.

Unless the LDP wins comfortably in next year’s Upper House election, Kishida will remain in a somewhat shaky position at the top, leaving him vulnerable to potential challenges from within the party to oust him should his support continue to slip in the coming months.

In the meantime, Kishida will face the daunting challenge of rallying a skeptical public to his side in order to fulfill his campaign pledges, especially his promise to empower the middle class by generating a positive cycle of growth and distribution to raise wages. Kishida has stressed the importance of trust and empathy and he frequently held dialogue sessions with ordinary citizens on the campaign trail.

When the Diet reconvenes, Kishida pledged to submit an economic stimulus package.

Tetsuro Fukuyama (left), secretary-general of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, and CDP deputy leader Akira Nagatsuma place names of winners in the Lower House election on a board at a Tokyo hotel on Sunday night. | KYODO
Tetsuro Fukuyama (left), secretary-general of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, and CDP deputy leader Akira Nagatsuma place names of winners in the Lower House election on a board at a Tokyo hotel on Sunday night. | KYODO

The center- and left-leaning opposition parties might have been hoping for a better performance, but their initiative to consolidate many of their candidates can be called a moderate success. The five parties — the CDP, the JCP, the DPP, the SDP and Reiwa — have fielded unified candidates in more than 210 single-member districts to avoid splitting the opposition vote.

Of those electoral districts, 139 was won by a ruling-bloc backed candidate, while 59 seats were won by candidates backed in the opposition’s coordination efforts. The remaining went to Nippon Ishin and other candidates.

In past Lower House elections, similar efforts were unsuccessful, primarily because the opposition parties were divided. Although the CDP and JCP have fundamental differences in their views on diplomatic and defense issues, this time they prioritized defeating the LDP and Komeito — their common political foe.

Yuichiro Tamaki, head of the Democratic Party for the People, poses at the party's headquarters in Tokyo on Sunday night after winning in the Lower House election. | KYODO
Yuichiro Tamaki, head of the Democratic Party for the People, poses at the party’s headquarters in Tokyo on Sunday night after winning in the Lower House election. | KYODO

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 notable nationwide drop in COVID-19 cases seen in recent weeks.

The LDP’s prospects of winning seats and maintaining a sufficient 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.

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.

Information from Kyodo added

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