- Mistrust of the opposition, down-trending turnouts, and structural advantages in the electoral system all help make the LDP a safe bet in the 31 October general election.
- Opposition parties' hopes depend on improved turnout and a coordination pact, but they don't have strong expectations of taking power this time.
- New Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's talk of moving beyond Abenomics in a foreign-press interview belies the reality that the fingerprints of Shinzo Abe and his allies are all over the LDP's election manifesto.
With the Lower House election campaign having officially begun on 19 October, the most recent poll by the Kyodo press agency this week showed support for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) at around 30%, with the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP) at 10% and undecided voters at around 40%. Such large numbers of undecideds are not unusual before an election and are not considered a concern for the ruling coalition. Similar polls prior to the 2017 Lower House vote put LDP support in the mid-20s and undecideds as high as the low 40s, yet the party went on to win a resounding 284 of 465 seats while coalition partners Komeito secured a further 29.
There are three major factors that make the LDP simply the best bet to win on 31 October. The first is TINA. This is the legacy of the calamitous performance in government between 2009 and 2012 of the CDP's predecessor party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). The 2009 election saw the electorate reject the LDP as the dominant party for the first and only time in the modern era, and the DPJ raised high hopes for fundamental transformation through a change of government. However, the inexperienced and ill-disciplined party then utterly dashed those hopes during three tumultuous years of governmental mismanagement and broken campaign promises. As a result, many independent or undecided voters in the electorate now reluctantly conclude that There Is No Alternative (TINA) to LDP rule.
A second factor is turnout. During the past decade, more independent voters are disillusioned about the prospects for reform and fail to vote at all, and the downward trend in electoral turnout undoubtedly helps the ruling conservative parties. This was particularly apparent when turnout fell 10 percentage points in 2012 and the LDP regained power with two million votes fewer than when they lost the 2009 election. In Lower House elections held since the landmark 1994 electoral reforms, a 1% decrease in turnout has typically correlated with seat numbers for the LDP and Komeito rising by around 0.5%, while a 1% increase in turnout has boosted the main liberal opposition party of the day by a similar magnitude.
The third and most significant factor benefiting the LDP is the party's structural advantages in the electoral system. In the upcoming election, voters will choose 289 members from Westminster-style single-member local constituencies elected on a first-past-the-post (FPTP) basis, and a further 176 members from eleven regional multi-member districts chosen through proportional representation (PR). Voters will have two votes, for a candidate in the local constituency and for a party in the regional district, while candidates with a party affiliation may stand in both polls simultaneously. Within this framework, the LDP benefits from consistently solid levels of support and strong local organizational capacities in constituencies across the entire country, and further gains from how support is tallied for the regional PR blocks. The party has especially strong roots in rural areas, and these are typically over-represented in the Diet due to chronic electoral malapportionment. The LDP and Komeito also effectively coordinate across seats to maximize their vote.
As such, the best hope for opposition parties is to catalyze a high turnout in order to trim the LDP's current large majority, but they themselves do not have strong expectations of winning power this electoral cycle. Though he has often spoken of achieving regime change, CDP party leader Yukio Edano's most optimistic prediction is that the opposition have a 25% chance of victory. Even this seems overly optimistic, not least because LDP support levels have jumped around 10% since Fumio Kishida replaced Yoshihide Suga as prime minister, while the CDP is polling up to 10 points below its level before the 2017 vote. The CDP, the Japan Communist Party (JCP) and two other parties have finally agreed a non-compete pact in 70% of single-member constituencies that should help maximize the opposition's seat count, but anything more than a slight haircut for the LDP would be a surprise.
Meanwhile, the LDP continues apace with planning for governing in the next Diet. In remarks undoubtedly calibrated for an international investor audience, Kishida's recent interview with the Financial Times included rhetoric about moving beyond Abenomics and neoliberalism with a “new capitalism” and “warm-hearted” reform. Yet the substance of the LDP's policy manifesto as well as internal party dynamics continue to suggest no major break from the'Abe line' of governance that has prevailed since late 2012. Though Kishida is appointing an advisory council to discuss realizing growth and distribution, the party's election manifesto contains essentially no new policies to this end. One point of note in the interview was Kishida's comment on corporate governance, that he favors reducing the burden for small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) compared to large firms.
Rather than repudiating the policies of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the manifesto underlines the continued influence of Abe and his allies on the powerful right wing of the party. The starting point for the LDP's economic framework remains the three tenets of Abenomics, namely ultra-loose monetary policy, flexible fiscal policy, and reforms. Building from that, the manifesto promises to focus investment in crisis management and economic growth sectors. This was a signature policy commitment from the party leadership manifesto not of Kishida but of Abe-endorsed hardliner Sanae Takaichi. Similarly, the hints that defense-related expenditure could possibly double reflects Takaichi's position more than Kishida's. Another Abe ally, party Secretary-General Akira Amari is driving the manifesto's economic security agenda, and it was Amari rather than Kishida who announced that the LDP would seek to raise the number of operational nuclear power reactors from 9 to around 30 to meet Japan's decarbonization goals. This, too, is in line with the Abe administration's controversial push for restarts, which had only limited success due to feisty opposition from local communities and their representatives.