Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2021.11.12

Unpacking Japan’s post-election narratives

~The Lower House election did no play out as many predicted~

the japan times on November 4, 2021

International Politics/Diplomacy

Contrary to the mainstream media’s predictions, Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party comfortably won a stable majority of 276 seats against unified opposition party candidates in the Oct. 31 Lower House election. The major newspapers’ editorials, however, were more divided than united over the results.

A conservative Sankei Shimbun editorial, for example, called the election a victory for the LDP and a “failure of the ‘joint struggle’ by the Constitutional Democratic Party and the Japanese Communist Party.” It argued that “Kishida must achieve results with the new stable majority” and said “it’s time to get serious about deterring China.”

The liberal Mainichi Shimbun, in contrast, asserted that “the prime minister must manage the government with humility” because the “failure of big-name politicians to win elections shows people’s distrust.” The paper urged Kishida to break with the old political ways on the grounds that “the nine years of the Shinzo Abe administration have seen a series of events that have eroded the public’s trust in politics.”

And the arguably more liberal Tokyo Shimbun was more optimistic about the opposition. Its editorial said that the “continuation of power is a tough call, but the awakening of public sentiment will spur change,” predicting that this “election will be a turning point” and “The awakening of the will of the people will change politics and revitalize democracy.”

The varying observations by the media have been fueling several narratives in the country. Now that the post-election dust has settled, it’s time to check some of these storylines.

Did the media mislead?

Probably not. Most opinion polls conducted by major news media before October clearly indicated that many voters had expressed dissatisfaction with the LDP’s governance of the past nine years, which had been criticized for a series of political scandals and a slow economic recovery due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although not intentionally misleading the public, the nation’s media outlets might have misread the capricious constituents or failed to catch up with the rapidly changing mood of the voters — or both. It might have also been too risky for them to change their predictions.

Was COVID-19 a factor?

Very likely. The number of COVID-19 cases in Tokyo rose to 5,000 per day in mid-August and was around 2,500 in early September. Many voters surveyed in the polls at the time were not happy with the government. By the time the Lower House was dissolved on Oct. 14, however, the political winds seem to have started to change. The number of daily infections in Tokyo dropped to 62 on Oct. 14 and further to only 24 on Oct. 29, two days before the election. Those numbers mattered.

Was the LDP the winner?

Hardly. As compared to the number of seats it held before the election, the LDP lost only 15 seats while the Constitutional Democratic Party won 96 seats, 14 seats less than its previous number. Although more detailed analysis is needed, it may not be coincidental that Osaka-based Nippon Ishin no Kai won 41 seats — 31 more than its previous 10.

This all means that the biggest winner was Nippon Ishin and not necessarily the LDP. Many voters might have felt either they could live with the LDP, they may reprimand the LDP at a later date or they would not vote for the LDP but could not support the Constitutional Democrats-Communists either, so they chose to back conservative reformists like Nippon Ishin.

A generational change?

Not necessarily. Some pundits pointed to a “generational shift” in the election. Several well-known veteran lawmakers from both the ruling and opposition parties surprisingly either lost their seats or at least their districts (but were re-elected through proportional representation).

That said, it remains to be seen whether it can be called a “generational shift.”

First, many unsuccessful legislators may have simply underestimated the “frustration of the voters,” or in other words, were so overconfident that they did not take this election seriously. Secondly, and simply put, some of those who lost their seats were just either too old or have been elected too many times.

Foreign policy changes?

Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi succeeded the LDP’s secretary-general, Akira Amari, who resigned from the post following his election loss in his district. No matter who is appointed as the new foreign minister on Nov. 10, it is unlikely that this election will change Japan’s foreign policy for the following three reason:

First, the global security situation, and the U.S.-China hegemonic competition in particular, has defined and will continue to define the basic principles and fundamental directions of Japan’s foreign policy.

Second, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has no reason to deviate from the consensus of the newly formed political coalition inside the LDP, including the continuation of the Abe/Suga foreign policy of the past nine years.

Finally, given the results of the general election, the majority of the Japanese constituents seem to support the ongoing foreign policy of Japan, including the state of affairs in its relations with China, South Korea and the United States. I, for one, am not particularly worried about the next six months.

What should be of more concern, however, is the Upper House election to be held next summer. If the LDP did not win the Lower House election in the way it wished this year, no one should be surprised if the LDP-Komeito ruling coalition loses a simple majority in the next Upper House election.

Japan’s political world is already in a new battle for the Upper House election, whether the next COVID-19 “wave” would come back this winter or not. The Lower House election may have served as a prelude for a more structural transformation of Japanese politics in the years to come.