Will Kishida go for a snap election in Japan?
Prof Rajaram Panda

Amid speculation that Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida might call for a snap election, the news of fissures in the LDP-Komeito alliance would not be a welcome prospect for the future of Japanese politics. The speculation emerged following a flurry of diplomatic achievements that Kishida government achieved including a long-awaited thaw in bilateral relations with South Korea and a fruitful Group of Seven (G-7) summit in Hiroshima, leading to a substantial boost to his approval ratings.

However, the news of fissure between the alliance partners – LDP and Komeito – could be worrisome. The partnership has survived because the two parties prioritised stable power over policy differences. Even in the past during the Shinzo Abe administration, both the coalition partners had sharp differences when Abe pushed the case for revising the country’s post-War Constitution. Such differences however did not come in the way of working together, leading the partners to mark the 20th anniversary of their alliance relationship. Komeito President Natsuo Yamaguchi built understanding with Abe and now with Kishida to prioritise political stability over anything else.

To recapitulate, the LDP, Komeito and the now-defunct Liberal Party established a coalition government from 1999 to 2009. The LDP and Komeito have cooperated in every election since, even during a rare stint when they were out of power for just over three years from 2009 to 2012. Since then both parties have worked together on candidates in previous elections. The LDP has always relied on votes from members of Soka Gakkai, Komeito’s powerful support base. It has been a win-win arrangement for both. In exchange for electoral cooperation, Komeito has actively lobbied its conservative partner to promote lavish policies catering to its supporters, such as cash handouts and other social welfare-related programmes. Despite differences on certain issues such as the attempt to revise the Constitution, desire to have political stability kept the partners together.

Amid talks of a snap election, differences surfaced over selection of candidates for the next Lower House election between the two parties. Komeito is backed by Japan’s biggest Buddhist group Soka Gakkai. Amid speculation that the decades-long alliance between the LDP and Komeito may be dissolved over differences on fielding candidates, both sides agreed to maintain their coalition. Kishida met with Komeito’s Chief Representative Yamaguchi Natsuo after Komeito informed the LDP of its decision not to support LDP candidate running in Tokyo. Komeito was toying with the idea to field a candidate in one of five new single-seat districts to be added in Tokyo from the next Lower House election but dropped the plan after LDP rejected the idea. The plan was not pursued further after Kishida and Yamaguchi met over lunch during which ensuring political stability overrode all other considerations. The decision to preserve the alliance was mutual.

In fact, the differences between the LDP and Komeito originated from a redrawing the electoral map under legislation enacted in 2022 to narrow the vote disparity between densely and sparsely populated House of Representative constituencies.

Though differences have been nipped in the bud, sceptics still feel that there are fault-lines and that the 20-year-old political marriage could end in divorce if either party hardens its stance. Those who doubt the understanding between Kishida and Yamaguchi take the position that the efforts by LDP General-Secretary Toshimitsu and Komeito Secretary-General Kiichi Ishii could still play the spoiler. The olive branch seemingly offered by the LDP to its junior coalition partner could come under threat if either side hardens positions at a later stage. Amid increasing speculation that Kishida will call a snap election before the end of the ongoing session of Parliament, parties have been scrambling to make their own arrangements for electoral constituencies.

There could be multiple scenarios if a snap election is called. The first scenario could be summertime vote as Kishida’s popularity grew in the aftermath of the international meeting in Hiroshima hosted by Kishida. It may be recalled when former US President Barack Obama undertook his historic visit to Hiroshima in May 2016, the approval ratings for then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet jumped by between 3 and 5 percentage points, according to several opinion polls.

The G-7 summit in May was no exception. The media was abuzz with news that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had made a quick visit. The image of his visit and other world leaders laying wreaths at the cenotaph in Hiroshima Peace Park influenced the feelings of the people. The change in popular opinion on Kishida administration can be discerned from the surveys conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun and Mainichi Shimbun after the Hiroshima summit indicating a surge of 9 percentage points in Kishida’s popularity. Indeed, Kishida’s ratings had been increasing since early March after a thaw was reached in relations with South Korea and plan to resolve the wartime labour issue between the two countries. The Kyodo opinion polls also considered the world leaders’ visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum as “significant” and step toward the realisation of a nuclear weapons-free world.

Kishida may be sure of obtaining a majority if he calls for a snap election against the background of the upswing in his popular ratings but his problems would not end. A strong mandate cannot be an insurance against Kishida’s plan to pursue large increases in defence spending and on addressing declining birth rate, both of which would entail an unpopular tax hike. The key issue that would keep Kishida engaged would be security concerns that would necessitate higher defence spending up to 2 per cent of the GDP, thereby breaching the self-imposed limit of keeping it below 1 per cent of the GDP. As security threat heightens stemming from North Korea’s relentless missile launches and China’s aggressive posture, public opinion might build up endorsing Kishida’s policy. This makes a snap election anytime soon a high possibility.

Moreover, as the opposition is fragmented the sour in relations between the LDP and Komeito would not be a worry. On the contrary the opposition’s divisive policies could be a boon for Kishida. Amid rumour that Kishida would call for a snap vote on 16 June before the current parliament session ends on 21 June, Yuichiro Tamaki, the leader of Japan’s small opposition party, the Democratic Party for the People (DPP) said his party is prepared to face the polls.

There is still another scenario. Normally a snap poll is called when the government convenes a parliamentary session to pass the supplementary budget. However, since Kishida is sitting over a comfortable majority in both the houses of the Diet and has been less than two years in office, there may not be any compelling reason to hold an election until 2025. But then Kishida needs to be re-elected as leader of the LDP when a vote for the party head would be due in September 2024 and his first term at the helm ends.

In this scenario, Kishida could be struggling to play his cards successfully for over a year before the leadership vote. Kishida could also be confronting in dealing with potential Cabinet scandals as normally seen in Japanese politics and which cannot be ruled out. Therefore he might not like to be at the mercy of the opposition’s attack and instead opt for a snap vote. If Kishida opts for a snap vote and wins a strong victory as the current situation is favourable to him, he shall have a chance to reshuffle the LDP executive line-up, thereby guaranteeing his re-election as the party head in September 2024, thereby cementing his base in the party further.

There is yet another scenario. Kishida could opt for a snap election just before the LDP presidential vote in September 2024. That would leave with little time for any potential contender(s) to pose any threat to him. This scenario unfolds the possibility of Kishida of being one of the long-term Prime Ministers of Japan like his illustrious predecessors such as Abe, Junichiro Koizumi and Yasuhiro Nakasone.

Though Kishida rejected the idea of a snap election during a parliamentary debate amid speculation, the past precedents might lead Kishida to rethink. For example, when former Prime Ministers Taro Aso and Yasuhide Suga waited longer to call snap vote, both were later left with little time to manoeuvre. Kishida’s claims of not holding a snap vote need not be taken at face value. Kishida probably remembers Nakasone who opted for a snap election in June 1986 one month after a G-7 summit in Tokyo after months of dismissing rumours when he revealed later that he had been thinking about it since the beginning of the year. It is possible Kishida is keeping his cards close to his chest and his denial cannot be taken at face value.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

Image Source: https://www.japan.go.jp/kizuna/2021/11/prime_minister_kishida_fumio.html

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