The result of Sunday’s Lower House election was a vote of confidence in the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — by default. The opposition was more fragmented than ever, failing to put up a viable challenge to the administration and allowing the Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito ruling alliance to once again sweep a two-thirds majority of the seats contested.
Abe’s snap election gamble paid off, maintaining the structure of his administration and increasing the chances of him winning a third term as LDP president next year through 2021. But the prime minister should not take the outcome as an unqualified thumbs-up for the administration by voters. As he stated while commenting on the election result, Abe should humbly manage his administration as he grapples with its policy challenges going forward.
The yet another landslide for the LDP-Komeito alliance — the fifth in a row in nationwide Diet races since Abe returned the coalition to power in 2012 — belies the sagging, though still steady, popular support for his administration, whose approval ratings were outnumbered by disapproval in most media polls taken before the election. A series of scandals that hit the administration and LDP lawmakers resulted in heavy losses for the party in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election in July.
Abe’s decision to dissolve the Lower House last month for Sunday’s snap election was apparently intended to catch the opposition off guard and maximize the chances of the ruling coalition. The then top opposition Democratic Party was in tatters, and Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike had yet to make the widely anticipated attempt to replicate her local party’s success in the Tokyo assembly race in national politics.
Koike’s move to launch the Kibo no To (Party of Hope) party just as Abe announced his decision to call the snap election — and the DP leadership’s surprise decision to effectively disband the party and have its members run on the ticket of the popular governor’s party — appeared to create a potent contender. But DP members were split into three groups — those running as Kibo no To candidates, those running as independents and those forming the new Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) — after Koike said she’d reject members who refused to change their position on the security legislation enacted in 2015.
The realignment that Koike triggered in the lead-up to the campaign thus ended up fragmenting the opposition forces, instead of uniting them. In roughly 70 percent of the 289 single-seat electoral districts across the country, the opposition forces competed with each other — to the benefit the ruling coalition, which went on to sweep more than 80 percent of the contested seats. Even though Koike’s party said it aimed to take power in the election, the decision by Koike not to run in the race herself — and the party’s failure to put up any other prime ministerial candidate — dissipated voters’ expectations for the new force.
The poor performance by Koike’s party was symbolized by its dismal results in Tokyo, the governor’s home turf where her local party upset the LDP in the assembly race just three months earlier. Only one of the 23 candidates that Kibo no To fielded in electoral districts in Tokyo won a race, and the three seats it captured in the capital’s proportional representation bloc was half the six won by the LDP, which also swept 19 of the 25 single-seat constituencies in Tokyo.
It was ironic that the CDP — comprising former DP members rejected by Koike — went on to more than triple its pre-election strength to emerge as the second-largest force in the Lower House behind the LDP. The CDP is believed to have made its gains by garnering the support of voters critical of the Abe administration. Still, the number of seats it won — 54 — is the lowest for a No. 1 opposition force since 1955. Although some of the former DP lawmakers who won the election as independents are expected to ally themselves with the CDP, further realignment of the opposition camp will be necessary to rebuild a force that can stand up to the governing parties.
The LDP collected 33 percent of the proportional representation votes cast on Sunday. Such votes garnered by the CDP, at 19 percent, and Kibo no To, at 17 percent, combined outnumbers the LDP’s total. The CDP and Kibo no To combined outperformed the LDP in terms of the proportional representation seats they won. That shows the fragility of the LDP’s wins — and the folly of the fragmentation of the opposition in challenging the governing party, which was repeated once again in Sunday’s election.