Less than a year since he became prime minister and led his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to a significant victory in the lower house elections in October 2021, Kishida Fumio faces a crucial national election next month. His party’s success in winning a stable majority at this election will secure Kishida his full term in office and should allow him to pursue his policy agenda, as no national elections are due until 2025.
Japan’s 26th triennial election to elect half of the 248-member upper house, or the House of Councillors, will be held on July 10. Official campaigning kicked off on June 22. The upper house of the national Diet is a relatively less powerful body than the House of Representatives, the lower house, from where the prime minister and a bulk of cabinet ministers are drawn and which also controls legislation on key issues such as the national budget.
Yet elections to the House of Councillors are not taken lightly in Japanese politics. Electoral results of the upper house can have a significant impact on the government of the day, both for legislative purposes and for judging the credibility of the ruling party and its leader. Not only can the upper house apply brakes on legislation passed by the lower house, but also history suggests bad electoral outcomes in the House of Councillors can even unmake prime ministers. Then-Prime Minister Hashimoto Ryutaro resigned following a considerable loss of LDP seats in the 1998 upper house election. Similarly, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo resigned just a few months after the 2007 upper house election, largely under pressure due to his party’s poor performance.
At the 2019 election, the upper house consisted of 245 members, but following electoral adjustments the number goes up to 248 this year. This is a “permanent” house that is never dissolved, with half its members elected every three years. Members are elected through a combination of single voting and proportional voting. Fifty members are elected through a complex open-list proportional representation system. Another 74 members will be elected by direct votes to candidates in 45 prefectural districts – 32 members from single-member districts and 42 from 13 multiple-member districts, with Tokyo returning six members, for example.
This election comes at a time when Japan faces several economic and strategic challenges, especially in the wake of the Russian military intervention in Ukraine and China’s ever-increasing military assertiveness in the region, including around Japanese waters.
On the economic front, Japan’s currency has fallen to a 24-year low against the dollar and costs of living are increasing, including rising prices of fuel. It is not clear how Kishida’s flagship economic blueprint of “New Capitalism,” a virtuous cycle of growth and better income distribution, will help voters with the immediate economic challenges. The government passed a supplementary budget in late May offering subsidies to keep prices down. But its impact has been minimal and it does not seem to have made a difference to ordinary households.
In opinion polls following the supplementary budget, 56 percent had a negative view of the government’s attempt to stabilize prices. In another poll, 64 percent said the level of current inflation was “unacceptable.” There has also been a drop in support for the Kishida cabinet according to a Mainichi poll taken in mid-June. These are by no means good news for Kishida.
On the diplomatic front, Kishida broadly follows Abe’s initiatives such as a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” deeper engagement with the United States, and investing diplomatic capital in the Quad process, while engaging Southeast Asian nations. Even Kishida’s emphasis on increasing defense spending is not new, although no leader before him had announced the prospect of doubling the budget from the current 1 percent to 2 percent in the next five years.
What distinguishes Kishida from Abe is his policy on Russia in the wake of the Ukraine war. While Abe followed a policy of engagement with Russia in the hope that an agreement on the territorial dispute with Russia may be reached. But this did not progress at all, and Abe’s efforts ultimately failed. Kishida took a hard-line approach on Russia following Ukraine’s invasion. His policy towards Russia and support for Ukraine has been strongly embraced by Japanese citizens.
Public opinion polls suggest that Kishida’s plan to increase defense spending and his policy to develop counter-strike capabilities are increasingly getting greater public support, unlike in the past. More than 50 percent of Japanese now favor spending up to 2 percent of GDP on defense.
Kishida has set a low bar for himself at this election. Together with LDP’s coalition partner Komeito, 69 seats currently held by the ruling bloc are up for replacement; the remaining 69 will continue until the next election. However, Kishida has set a target of winning just 56 seats, which will give the government a simple majority. This is a tactical move as Kishida will claim greater victory if the coalition wins extra seats above the modest target.
Various polls suggest that the LDP with its partner is likely to maintain its majority, as the two parties are working in tandem to maximize their electoral gains. On the other hand, opposition parties are in disarray and have not been able to cooperate, as they did at the 2019 upper house election, and are instead fielding candidates against each other. A fragmented opposition gives the LDP and Komeito an electoral advantage.
While the coalition is set to win the election and should easily achieve its modest target, for Kishida, the domestic challenges remain significant and foreign policy issues are not easy to negotiate either. Rising prices and little wage hikes will hurt ordinary households badly and the weakened yen will further put pressure on prices. There is no sign that the Ukraine war will end anytime soon, which will keep the oil prices high. Energy costs are likely to soar as a result.
It is doubtful whether Kishida will be able to increase defense spending as much as he would like to. Japan’s fiscal health is not sound. Furthermore, the LDP’s coalition partner, although small in numbers, wields significant influence on policy decisions. Komeito is not keen to increase defense spending substantially nor does it approve of Kishida’s counter-strike policy.
Even with a stable majority in both houses of parliament, the road ahead for Kishida on both domestic and foreign policy issues is not smooth. Politics in Japan will be interesting to watch to see how Kishida moves ahead with his plans of “New Capitalism,” defense spending, and other critical strategic choices including developing counter-attack capabilities.