Sunday night was shaping up to be a night that many Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers would rather forget, based on exit poll data pointing to the ruling party losing a majority of its own.

But as the night progressed and ballots were counted, it turned out to be one that could be seen in a much more positive way. Defying some media predictions, the ruling party ended up achieving an “absolute stable majority” of 261 by itself, allowing the party to chair all standing committees and have its lawmakers make up the majority of members on those bodies.

Combined with the seats obtained by its junior coalition partner Komeito — which obtained three additional seats, raising its tally to 32 — the ruling bloc won 293 seats.

The duo saw a decrease in their pre-election strength of 305 seats, but considering media projections indicated an uphill battle during the campaign, the outcome was more than satisfactory for Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who had laid out a goal for the ruling coalition of achieving a simple majority.

But instead of basking in glory as a victorious party leader, the prime minister looked downcast on Monday while speaking to reporters during a news conference at the LDP headquarters.

He remained humble even when he mentioned the LDP’s comfortable majority, acknowledging the LDP had received “harsh comments” throughout the election and promising to analyze the results of each constituency, with the resulting lessons being applied to national politics and the next election.

“This was a very tough election, but it showed people’s desire to continue building the future of this country under stable politics overseen by the Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito administration and the Kishida administration,” Kishida said. “I am very grateful for this and I will not let you down.”

Although lawmakers, pundits and academics are still analyzing the reasons for the ruling parties’ victory, a series of factors — such as unified opposition candidates falling flat and low voter turnout — might have tipped the scales in favor of the LDP and Komeito.

The LDP benefited from a multitude of factors. To start with, the initiative by the left-leaning opposition camp to consolidate candidates in single-seat districts did not go well. The main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan teamed up with the Japanese Communist Party and other minority parties to field unified candidates in more than 210 districts nationwide. In the end, the CDP earned 96 seats, a fall from its pre-election strength of 110.

Considering the CDP’s single-digit approval ratings, LDP supporters were always unlikely to switch allegiance to the opposition parties, said Naoko Taniguchi, a political scientist at Keio University, adding that nonetheless working with the JCP might have allowed the opposition to compete neck-and-neck with the LDP in many districts.

“Overall, there might have been a lingering sense of rejection against the JCP as a governing party,” she said.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida speaks to reporters at the Liberal Democratic Party's headquarters in Tokyo on Monday. | KYODO
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida speaks to reporters at the Liberal Democratic Party’s headquarters in Tokyo on Monday. | KYODO

Surveys indicate that, compared with other countries, Japanese voters have a tendency to seek stability, leading them to turn to a ruling party with a clear track record, especially during a time of crisis such as now, said Taniguchi.

“There may be a change if (a ruling party’s) handling of a crisis is unbearably bad, but coronavirus cases were down during this election season, and I suspect people who think the LDP is bad but the opposition aren’t any more trustworthy did not go to vote,” Taniguchi said.

The estimated turnout was 55.93%, the third-lowest figure since World War II. Taniguchi said people without a party affiliation and even people who are dissatisfied with politics are not heading to the polls, describing the situation as “bad.”

Still, now armed with a mandate, Kishida hopes to move forward by implementing his agenda. During the news conference Monday, he announced he would formulate an economic package by the middle of the month and pass a supplementary budget by the end of the year.

He also pledged to put forward his administration’s COVID-19 measures within the first half of this month and establish a health system that would allow all patients who need medical care to be admitted to hospital by the end of the month.

At the same time, it is uncertain if his path forward will be smooth sailing. Even though the ruling coalition won, many prominent lawmakers failed to defend their single-seat districts, including the party’s secretary-general and a current Cabinet minister. Kishida assumed power less than a month ago, leaving questions about his governing ability.

Unless he can further cement his power base, he could find himself operating on shaky ground, making him vulnerable to a potential leadership challenge before the Upper House election, which is slated for next summer.

The day after the election, the mood within the LDP was far from celebratory. For the first time, the party’s sitting secretary-general — essentially the most powerful executive after the party president — lost his single-seat constituency.

Secretary-General Akira Amari has tendered his resignation on a preliminary basis to the prime minister, who told reporters he would make a decision as soon as possible after sitting down with Amari.

Later Monday, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said he had accepted the secretary-general position after Kishida offered it to him. The party’s general council will formalize the decision Thursday.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida speaks during a news conference at the Liberal Democratic Party's headquarters in Tokyo on Monday. | POOL / VIA AFP-JIJI
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida speaks during a news conference at the Liberal Democratic Party’s headquarters in Tokyo on Monday. | POOL / VIA AFP-JIJI

Amari, a 13-term veteran, won a seat through proportional representation in the end, but the defeat in a single-seat constituency was a shocking turn of events, considering he had served in an array of critical ministerial and party positions, including as a minister overseeing the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact and as the chair of the party’s Research Commission on the Tax System.

Amari is a close ally of the party’s vice president, Taro Aso, and a friend of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, meaning he wields tremendous influence within the LDP. The tight-knit group has been given the nickname “3A.”

While serving as economy minister, he was accused of accepting bribes from a construction company. Although he has denied his personal involvement, he resigned from that post in January 2016. Prosecutors decided not to indict him in May of that year.

When Kishida tapped Amari as secretary-general, the choice was questioned, with reports about the bribery scandal re-emerging. Critics saw Amari as a representative of the old-school party politics that Kishida had pledged to overhaul during the LDP’s leadership contest, particularly because Amari was regarded as Aso’s and Abe’s agent.

“Normally, taking a major post like the party’s secretary-general will boost a candidate’s electoral performance. But in Mr. Amari’s case, it might have worked negatively,” said Ko Maeda, an associate professor of political science at the University of North Texas. “After taking the position, he received much media attention and became a symbol of old-style politics. Since his name recognition was already very high, he had little to gain electorally from his appointment as the secretary-general.”

In addition to Amari, former and current Cabinet ministers who were defeated in their single-member constituencies won via proportional representation, including former digitalization minister Takuya Hirai, former Olympics Minister Yoshitaka Sakurada and Kenji Wakamiya, the minister in charge of the Osaka Expo.

“The LDP lost many single-member district seats, but it increased its proportional representation votes, especially in the countryside, and was able to mitigate the size of its loss,” Maeda said.

Nobuteru Ishihara, a 10th-term lawmaker from Tokyo who is the head of his own faction and has served in a variety of roles such as the party’s secretary-general and the environment minister, won neither a single-member constituency nor a proportional representation seat. Takeshi Noda, who with a record of 16 election wins was the LDP’s most veteran lawmaker, lost his seat.

“In general, elections have become tougher for older members,” Taniguchi said. “In this time of crisis, voters were judging lawmakers’ abilities a little bit harshly, thinking there should only be politicians who are truly useful.

“A sense of values (among voters) in favor of generational change is emerging,” she said.

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