It was not the election outcome most people expected.
Entering Sunday’s vote, some media projections suggested that the ruling Liberal Democratic Party would lose upward of 50 seats. Even conservative estimates placed the losses at around 30 seats. In other words, many were ready to see a big blow to the ruling party.
When the counting stopped, the LDP and its coalition partner the Komeito defied those expectations — only losing a net total of 12 seats — retaining a comfortable lead above any opposition party. So, what should we make of this outcome?
This election was an important test for the newly minted Fumio Kishida administration. In September, the LDP eschewed the more popular Taro Kono because Kishida was the better fit for the party’s internal system, but the Japanese electorate had the opportunity to assert what they thought of that decision via the ballot box.
For Kishida, what happened in this election would determine how much political capital he has available for his first year in office, as well as informing his prospects for next summer’s Upper House election as he seeks to avoid becoming yet another revolving door prime minister.
Three numbers were important in this election: 233, 261 and 310. The first figure, 233, is the number of seats needed for the simple majority to control the Lower House. The second, 261, is the number required to hold what is known as a “stable majority,” meaning a party or coalition can head all the parliamentary committees and hold most of the committee billets. And finally, 310 seats would give the dominant party a supermajority and near complete legislative control.
After two years of pandemic conditions and economic slowdown, nobody expected the LDP-Komeito coalition to secure a supermajority, but they had a strong showing and bested most pre-election predictions. At 261 wins, the LDP was able to secure a stable majority even without the help of its junior coalition partner, though Komeito’s bump offers a comfortable buffer well above the stable majority threshold.
Indeed, it was a good outcome for the ruling coalition, and the election tells us three things about the current state of Japan’s political universe.
First, this election demonstrated that the LDP and Komeito vote-getting machines operated as good as ever for the parties. The LDP’s nationwide party apparatus and Komeito’s Soka Gakkai backers ensured that enough voters made it to the polls to help their chosen candidates succeed.
Although there were some surprise defeats for the LDP, including former secretary-generals Akira Amari and Nobuteru Ishihara, the ground truth is in the numbers — namely, the ruling coalition’s winning percentage. The LDP had a winning percentage of 78%, as 261 earned a seat in parliament out of 336 candidates the party fielded. Komeito had 60% of their candidates winning, with 32 out of 53 candidates securing a seat in the Diet. Those percentages were well above that of the opposition alliance. The Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan only saw a 40% success rate for its candidates, and for the Japanese Communist Party, only a paltry 8% of the 130 candidates were able to eke out victories.
That is not to say that the LDP and Komeito beat the CDP and JCP handily in individual races. Rather, many were neck-and-neck. What it does show is that the opposition has more work to do in devising strategies that can build enough momentum and interest to increase voter turnout. To overcome the advantage the LDP and Komeito enjoy owing to their vote-generating apparatuses, the opposition has to bring more voters to the polls. In this election, the opportunity was there for the opposition alliance, but they blew it.
The second takeaway is that this was about the best possible outcome for Kishida. The LDP Komeito performed above most observers’ expectations, which gives Kishida enough political capital to maneuver ahead of next summer’s Upper House election.
On top of that, key losses by members of the LDP old guard have yielded Kishida an additional mandate to shake things up inside the LDP. For example, party faction head Nobuteru Ishihara — a politician who was in contention to lead the LDP back in 2012 — failed to win his district. But of all the LDP members that lost their district, the most important to fall was LDP Secretary-General Akira Amari.
As one of the so-called Three A’s along with former prime ministers Shinzo Abe and Taro Aso, Amari gained his influential secretary-general billet as a concession for Abe and Aso’s help in engineering Kishida’s victory in the LDP presidential election last month. Amari was meant to offer the Three A’s a foothold in the party’s institutional leadership, but his loss upsets those designs.
Since the secretary-general is ultimately responsible for the LDP’s success in elections and other efforts, Amari could not hope to retain his position if he could not even hold on to his own district. Rather than wait for Kishida to push him out, he tendered his resignation, leaving the door open for Kishida to pick Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and make a personal ally the country’s top diplomat. Motegi, like Kishida, toes the line between old guard LDP politics and a more modern perspective.
Beyond elevating a more like-minded player to be his No. 2 in the party and bringing another ally into the Cabinet, Kishida loosened some of the shackles from the deals he had to make to become prime minister. When paired with the fact that old guard LDP politicians were losing their seats, Kishida will have a greater opportunity to reshape the LDP in his own image, rather than having to preserve the Abe legacy.
The final takeaway centers on Nippon Ishin no Kai. The Osaka-based party quadrupled its seat totals, but they still have much work to do to hold onto their gains. The party’s candidates still only won 42% of the contests they ran, and their greatest success was enjoyed in their home base in Osaka.
Nippon Ishin no Kai has been here before in “feast or famine” elections. The pendulum swing between relevance and obscurity at the national level has been ongoing since the party’s inception. Are they destined to remain a regional party with national aspirations? Will they eventually change their position and cozy up to the LDP in exchange for policy concessions. Will they posture themselves to be a true alternative to the LDP?
Nippon Ishin no Kai have less than a year to answer those questions. With the Upper House election looming, they will have to decide how they parlay their newfound momentum, lest they suffer the same sort of outcomes from bygone elections.
Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He previously served in the Japanese government as a Mansfield fellow.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.