Key questions for the upper house campaign
The campaign for Japan’s 10 July House of Councillors elections began on Wednesday, 22 June, with 533 candidates – including 177 women, 33.2% of the total, records for both the share and total number in an HOC election – vying for 124 seats in the 248-seat chamber plus one extra vacant seat in Kanagawa prefecture. Prefectures will elect seventy-five members, ranging from Tokyo’s six to the thirty-four prefectures that will choose only one (Tottori and Shimane, and Tokushima and Kochi will each elect a single representative as a pair.) The remaining fifty seats will be elected according to national voluntarily open-list proportional representation.
The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)-Komeito coalition will enter the campaign holding sixty-nine of 124 seats not up for election this cycle, meaning that they need to win fifty-six of 124 seats in this election to maintain a simple majority, what Prime Minister Kishida Fumio has identified as the government’s “victory line.” The LDP can win an absolute majority of its own by winning seventy seats.
While the ruling coalition is likely to clear the fifty-six-seat victory line , preserving the government’s control of the upper chamber, just how robust a majority the ruling coalition – and whether the LDP wins a simple majority of its own – will determine whether Kishida emerges from the election with his power enhanced.
In no particular order, here are the key questions that I will be watching during the eighteen-day campaign.
Will Nippon Ishin become a national party?
One of the major outcomes of the 2021 general election was the resurgence of the Osaka-based Nippon Ishin no Kai (sometimes called the Japan Innovation Party in English) as a formidable electoral presence. The party all but swept Osaka’s single-member districts but also saw some gains in other regions. Since the general election, the right-populist party has battled in the polls with the center-left Constitutional Democratic Party – which remained the largest opposition party but lost seats in the general election – for second place in opinion polls.
The party will be fielding forty-six candidates – twenty-six PR and twenty district – more than twice the twenty-two candidates it fielded in 2019. However, whereas in 2021 Nippon Ishin likely benefited from perceptions that Osaka Governor Yoshimura Hirofumi had deftly handled the Covid-19 pandemic while the LDP-led national government fumbled, the party may not be able to count on a similar boost in this election. Both in terms of its image and its organization, the party remains predominantly a Kansai party. It is revealing that the party will field candidates in only seven of the thirty-two single-member constituencies – the races that often determine the outcome of upper house elections – with the bulk running in more urban multi-member prefectures. In the single-member constituencies where Nippon Ishin is running candidates, it will be facing off against candidates from the CDP and other opposition parties, suggesting that it could serve to divide the non-LDP vote instead of drawing votes away from the ruling coalition.
The party’s most fundamental problem may be that its brand is as a “reformist” conservative party at a time when the Japanese political system seems to have moved on from the reformist conservatism of the 1990s and 2000s. But perhaps even more than that, there just is not that much in the party’s program to differentiate it from the LDP as a national party. A populist call to reduce the number of legislators as well as their pay and perks is not enough to make up for the fact that its national platform (jp) looks awfully similar to LDP’s.
Will inflation spoil Kishida’s election night?
However, Nippon Ishin, like other opposition parties, has opted to place the price increases fueled by a dramatically weakening yen at the center of its campaign against the ruling coalition. At the party leaders’ debate on the eve of the start of the campaign, opposition party chiefs took turns criticizing Kishida for his government’s response to higher costs. With polls consistently showing that a solid majority of the public is dissatisfied with the Kishida administration’s response to inflation, it is no surprise to see opposition parties trying to use the issue to make headway against a prime minister who until recently was enjoying some of the highest approval ratings of his short tenure. CDP leader Izumi Kenta has entered the campaign with “Kishida inflation” as a tagline that looks to be used heavily.
I have already argued that the political risks of inflation to the LDP’s electoral chances may be overblown – I haven’t seen signs that voters will turn out to vote against the government on this issue – but it is already clear that this campaign is going to be a strong test of that proposition. Whether or not voters are excited by the proposals offered by the opposition, Kishida will be under considerable pressure to signal that his government will do more after the campaign.
Will national security work in Kishida’s favor?
Until yen weakness and inflation rose to the top of the agenda, it appeared that the most significant issue of the campaign might be defense spending and the Kishida government’s plans for upgrading core national security policies in the second half of the year. The issue still featured prominently in the leaders’ debate – see a rough outline of the debate here (jp) – and Kishida will clearly try to use his response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (which has consistently received high marks in opinion polls) as he seek a vote of confidence from the electorate.
National security may well prove to be an asset for Kishida in this race, not least because the public appears to be behind the Kishida government’s plans to raise defense spending and even acquire strike capabilities. Don’t underestimate the prime minister’s ability to campaign as a steady, safe leader in a world that the public increasingly sees as dangerous. This will give him an edge over Nippon Ishin – which is offering similar policies but without the same level of public trust in its leadership – and put the CDP on the defensive, as the center-left party, despite some more realist gestures from Izumi, continues to look back to the 2015-2016 debate over collective self-defense.
Can the CDP and its allies bounce back?
The CDP and its left-wing partners, most notably the Japanese Communist Party (JCP), had a disappointing general election, losing seats after early polling suggested they had a chance to make serious gains at the ruling coalition’s expense. In the months since, the CDP swapped party founder Edano Yukio for Izumi, opted against a formal alliance with the JCP in the upper house elections, and continued to feud with the organized labor federation Rengo, traditionally the center-left’s most important backer, over what kind of relationship the party should have with the Communists. All the while, the party’s support has continued to languish below ten percent, none of which augurs well for Izumi’s first major test as party leader.
While foregoing formal coordination with the JCP may mean fewer attacks on the CDP for its willingness to partner with the Communists, it also means that there will be a unified opposition candidate in only eleven of the thirty-two single-member districts. The CDP and JCP candidates will run against each other in another eleven, six of which will also feature other opposition candidates. With opposition parties cannibalizing the vote in most of the single-member districts, the CDP’s opportunities to strengthen its position will be limited. Whether the HOC elections result in another leadership change, the vote is unlikely to resolve the difficult choices facing an opposition party that has failed to broaden its appeal among independents.
Will turnout improve?
In the 2019 upper house elections, voter turnout fell to 48.8%, the second-lowest turnout rate after 1995’s 44.52%. Not unlike other elections during former prime minister Abe Shinzō’s tenure, low turnout reflected a lack of enthusiasm for both Abe’s LDP and the opposition alternative. There are few signs that turnout will be dramatically higher.
Will Kishida make the LDP his party?
That said, if Kishida were to lead the LDP to a strong victory on the back of higher turnout, it would leave him in a stronger position following the election, able to claim that his milder political approach is delivering for the party and perhaps giving him for strength to resist pressure from Abe and others on the right.
Kishida’s first nine months as LDP president and prime minister have been heavily influenced by his relationship with Abe, who has not hesitated to use his influence as the leader of the LDP”s largest faction, its leading conservative, and his bully pulpit as a long-serving former prime minister to pressure Kishida on key policy questions. Most recently, of course, the two have been shadow boxing over fiscal policy and how to finance higher defense spending. While Abe’s voice is likely to only grow louder as the FY2023 budgetary process and the national security policy deliberations begin in earnest following the elections, Kishida can strengthen his leadership of the party with a convincing electoral victory. If the LDP were to underperform – for example, not coming anywhere close to the seventy seats that would give the LDP an absolute majority of its own – Kishida could have less freedom to buck Abe and choose his own course.
In general, with more time as prime minister compared to the general election held weeks after his inauguration, the upper house campaign is Kishida’s first real opportunity to put his stamp on the party’s identity. We have already seen this on the first day of the campaign, with Kishida beginning the campaign by referring to the LDP as a “national party that steadfastly listens to the voices of all the people.” This is a theme I have heard some LDP candidates play up before – Koizumi Shinjirō, for example – and it will be interesting to see how Kishida uses it during this campaign.
This is not a comprehensive list of important questions in this race. I may, for example, take up the constitution revision question on another occasion. But I think these questions give a good sense of what I will be watching for between now and 10 July. Stay tuned for more frequent, shorter posts as the campaign continues.