Kishida – 1, Democracy – 0; What Kishida's victory says about the state of democracy in Japan

By Rikki Kersten, Honorary Professor, Australia-Japan Research Centre – Australian National University

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida performed well in his first electoral test, securing an absolute majority. But Rikki Kersten writes the election result highlights the lack of competition in Japanese democracy and voter disenchantment with the ways of the old guard in the dominant Liberal Democratic Party.

Japan’s newest Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has emerged from the 31 October lower house election with a career-saving majority win. Despite an overall reduction in seats for the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Kishida has secured enough seats to enable the ruling coalition to control all 17 standing committees in parliament. But while the news is good for Kishida, it is less rosy for the state of Japan’s democracy.

We must ask ourselves how it can be that a Prime Minister who has one week in office to his name, dares not only to call an election but to do so in the clear expectation of victory. On the face of it, this behaviour displays a certain contempt for the electorate. More charitably, it reveals an arrogance that attaches to political entities who feel they are ‘born to rule’. In Japan’s case, the election result reinforces the entrenched political phenomenon of One-Party Dominance.

Since the formation of the current political system in 1955, the LDP has been in power on all but two occasions: 1993-94, and 2009 – 2012. Japan is usually acclaimed as an exemplary liberal democracy, holding free and fair elections (albeit with a lingering gerrymander) since 1945 on a regular basis. But the second pillar of parliamentary democracy has been missing, namely the possibility for the opposition party (or parties) to become the governing party.

Kishida campaigning
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida gives campaign street speech in front of Hitichi Station, Kanagawa, Japan - October 30, 2021. Image credit: @kishida230, Fumio Kishida, Twitter.

Instead, for a variety of reasons opposition parties in the past have either disqualified themselves from victory (by not running enough candidates to secure a majority, for example), collaborated in their own defeat through sweetheart deals with the ruling coalition, or simply split the progressive vote through an inability to cooperate. Opposition entities in a sense helped engineer their own status as parties of permanent opposition, completing a picture that at best makes Japan a lopsided liberal democracy.

While the electoral reforms of 1993 helped reduce corruption, Japan remains essentially a compromised democracy where real political competition occurs within the confines of the main ruling party. This controlled adversarial system sees competition between factions, whose leaders distribute positions, funds and control hierarchical progression for their members in return for loyalty and obedience.

The latest election shows us the nature of the damage wrought on Japanese democracy by decades of One-Party Dominance.

Going into the October poll, the LDP was expected to lose seats. As the fate of Kishida’s predecessor Yoshihide Suga indicated, voters were deeply unhappy with the government’s COVID-19 management and with the lacklustre outcomes of Abenomics. Moreover, the election of Kishida to the party presidency and Prime Ministership by the parliamentary party was regarded poorly by public opinion, which saw voters decry the deadening hand of the party’s old guard in suppressing the popular candidate Kono in favour of Kishida.

Former PM Yoshihide Suga
Former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga resigns, Tokyo, Japan - October 4, 2021. Inage credit: @sugawitter, Yoshihide Suga, Twitter.

The October election results revealed an electorate that has been conditioned by decades of One-Party Dominance to show their displeasure with the government not by voting them out, but by becoming complicit in the practice of controlled adversarial politics.

The electorate signalled its unhappiness with the LDP old guard by punishing certain individuals at the ballot box. At the top of this list is Secretary-General Akira Amari, who was instrumental in engineering Kishida’s win in the party presidency in collusion with former Prime Ministers Abe and Aso. Amari has suffered the humiliation of losing his lower house seat, though he has been saved by the parachute of being elected in the proportional representation part of the vote. This is the first time that a sitting Secretary-General has lost his seat. Kishida has accordingly been forced to dump Amari, placing Aso government veteran Motegi in the Secretary-General post.

In another signal that the old guard is on the nose, former LDP kingmaker and consummate strategist Ichiro Ozawa has also lost his seat, for the first time since 1969. Ozawa was running on the other side of the ledger in this election, for the Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP). His success in engineering the opposition victory in the 2009 poll means he is a great loss for the CDP and their future electoral prospects. For the voters however, it was Ozawa’s decades of primacy in LDP ranks and his association with old-style LDP power games that ultimately saw him face defeat for the first time in his career.

In another signal that the electorate has stopped choosing between parties or considering policy platforms, as many as 20 percent of votes were cast early, before polling day. Voters were unable to judge Kishida on his record given his short week in the job, and many were not open to persuasion by competing party platforms during the campaign. On this basis we can deduce that most voters were looking for a reformed LDP rather than a new government. Although Abe, Aso and Suga comfortably won their seats, their presence on the political stage will necessarily be limited by their advancing years.

On 31 October, the ruling LDP-Komeito coalition was confronted with an unprecedented challenge, with five opposition entities agreeing not to compete with each other in 213 out of 289 single seat constituencies, thus unifying the progressive vote. This hard-won collaboration did not lead to a breakthrough victory for the opposition coalition, and it remains to be seen whether the participating parties have the grit to continue the experiment in the long haul. If they can desist from blame-laying and continue issues-focussed cooperation in parliament, they may yet establish a policy platform that resonates with voters in future polls. On this occasion, they still resembled a motley and unlikely crew in the eyes of many voters, who recall the chaos (and sheer bad luck) of the Democratic Party of Japan-led government of 2009-2012.

But if it is change within the One-Party Dominant system that is sought, this may yet emerge from within LDP ranks through the collaboration that has arisen from defeated LDP presidential candidate Kono and his backers Shigeru Ishiba and Shinjiro Koizumi. Known as the Koishikawa group, these three popular politicians conducted their election campaigns in a coordinated manner, openly declaring their affinity and their determination to seek change within the LDP in future. It was the closest thing to a real alternative that the voters were presented with.

Kishida may claim he has a mandate from the people for his leadership, but he will overlook the evident disenchantment of the electorate with the old guard of the LDP at his peril. The stirrings of discontent within the LDP have not been stilled by their election victory, and the adversaries inside the tent remain potent foes.

Rikki Kersten is Honorary Professor at the Australia-Japan Research Centre at the Australian National University.

Banner image: Ruling party, the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP) seal victory in 2021 general election, Tokyo, Japan - October 31, 2021. Credit: @kishida230, Fumio Kishida, Twitter.