Analysis

Japan’s Lower House Elections Will Decide Kishida’s Fate

A “revolving door” premiership would have consequences both at home and abroad.

By , a research associate at the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland and an adjunct professor at American University.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida waves at voters while campaigning for his Liberal Democratic Party in the upcoming general election in Tokyo on Oct. 27.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida waves at voters while campaigning for his Liberal Democratic Party in the upcoming general election in Tokyo on Oct. 27. KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP via Getty Images

Japan’s lower house elections on Oct. 31 will be the first big test for newly minted Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who took office earlier this month after his predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, bowed out after only a year on the job. Quick as this succession may seem, it was the norm for Japan to have a new prime minister almost every year prior to the era of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who led the country for almost eight years from December 2012 to September 2020.

It’s too soon to know whether Suga’s resignation marked the beginning of another streak of “revolving door” Japanese prime ministers and whether the same fate will ultimately befall Kishida. In the past, some prime ministers resigned after political infighting or scandals while others quit due to personal health reasons. But more often than not, resignations have been the result of an election loss. Sunday’s vote, then, will be a litmus test for Kishida’s staying power.

Some may argue it does not matter how long Kishida serves. Japan, after all, is a stable democracy that respects the rule of law, conducts free and fair elections, and protects civil rights. The country has even avoided the pitfalls of populism that have made significant political inroads in Europe and the United States in recent years. It is also known for having a powerful bureaucracy that plays a major role in formulating policies and implementing them effectively.

Japan’s lower house elections on Oct. 31 will be the first big test for newly minted Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who took office earlier this month after his predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, bowed out after only a year on the job. Quick as this succession may seem, it was the norm for Japan to have a new prime minister almost every year prior to the era of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who led the country for almost eight years from December 2012 to September 2020.

It’s too soon to know whether Suga’s resignation marked the beginning of another streak of “revolving door” Japanese prime ministers and whether the same fate will ultimately befall Kishida. In the past, some prime ministers resigned after political infighting or scandals while others quit due to personal health reasons. But more often than not, resignations have been the result of an election loss. Sunday’s vote, then, will be a litmus test for Kishida’s staying power.

Some may argue it does not matter how long Kishida serves. Japan, after all, is a stable democracy that respects the rule of law, conducts free and fair elections, and protects civil rights. The country has even avoided the pitfalls of populism that have made significant political inroads in Europe and the United States in recent years. It is also known for having a powerful bureaucracy that plays a major role in formulating policies and implementing them effectively.

But there are reasons why the length of a Japanese prime minister’s tenure matters for Japan and the outside world.

Since 1994, Japanese political reforms have expanded the prime minister’s power. That year, electoral reforms replaced a parliamentary system of multi-seat constituencies with single-seat districts and proportional representation, meaning it was no longer possible for multiple candidates from a single party to win in a single electoral district.

This changed the dynamics within the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)—which has dominated Japanese politics for most of the past seven decades—by reducing competition among LDP factions that had once fielded dueling candidates on the district level. As a result, the influence of LDP faction leaders decreased, making the prime minister less beholden to their preferences and at least, in theory, allowing the leader to become more of an individual force.

A series of administrative reforms starting in the late 1990s also strengthened the prime minister’s legal authority to initiate and develop policies without relying on the bureaucracy. These included empowering the Cabinet Secretariat in 2001 with policy-designing functions and creating the Cabinet Office, which directly supports the prime minister in formulating policy. Abe’s administration strengthened the prime minister’s power over foreign policy further when it established a National Security Council in 2013 to centralize the power of security policymaking in the hands of the top political leadership.

In short, Japanese prime ministers today are in a much stronger position to set their country’s direction, determine its policy priorities, and implement reforms than their peers were 20 years ago.

Despite the added authority, a short-term prime minister would not have enough time to implement their medium-to-long-term visions for the country. A brief tenure does not enable the prime minister to win support from important stakeholders in the domestic political system to draft and pass legislation and implement their policy priorities. There are numerous examples of this phenomenon playing out in the not-too-distant past.

All Japanese prime ministers in recent memory have launched their own economic growth strategies after taking office. Yasuo Fukuda, who was in office from September 2007 to September 2008, planned to boost growth through technological innovation. His successor, Taro Aso, who served for slightly less than a year, laid out his Growth Initiative, which aimed to double the scale of the Asia-wide economy by transforming it from an export-oriented model to a demand-driven one. Beset further by the global financial crisis, neither of them made much progress.

From 2009 to 2012, the LDP was out of power. The three prime ministers of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) who governed during that time also put forth their own economic programs. For example, Yoshihiko Noda, who was in office for 482 days from September 2011 to December 2012, launched an eight-year economic growth strategy, the goal of which was to achieve “the rebirth of Japan.” The program, which was introduced after the March 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, aimed to create new industries and jobs in fields such as medical care and renewable energy. One of its many goals was to make fuel-efficient cars—such as gasoline-electric hybrids, electric, and compressed natural gas vehicles—comprise up to 50 percent of all new vehicles sold in Japan by 2020. But that plan floundered: Sales of such vehicles accounted for only 36.2 percent of total new car sales in Japan in 2020. The majority of the 36.2 percent consisted of gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles rather than fully electric vehicles, which are more environmentally friendly.

The same pattern holds for foreign policy. Fukuda laid out a 30-year vision that would make the Pacific Ocean “an inland sea” by promoting networks among Pacific Rim nations. One of the diplomatic priorities enshrined in this vision was for Japan to contribute to the U.S.-led fight against terrorism by continuing to allow Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force to conduct refueling operations for U.S. and foreign vessels engaged in counterterrorism efforts in the Indian Ocean. Ironically, Fukuda resigned after failing to push a bill to reauthorize the operations through the upper house, where the LDP had lost a majority. Meanwhile, Aso discussed promoting an “arc of freedom and prosperity” in which Japan would cooperate with nations that hold similar values. Although the basic concept lives in Japanese foreign policy today, few remember Aso’s initiative by name.

Abe ruptured all of these norms by serving for nearly eight years and utilizing the strengthened position of the prime minister to full effect. Perhaps most notable was his “Abenomics” economic growth program, which combined large-scale monetary easing with fiscal stimuli and structural reforms. Abenomics combated deflation, reduced unemployment, and produced corporate profits, even if it fell short of fundamentally changing the trajectory of Japan’s economic future. It was also a marketing success: It is rare for a Japanese prime minister’s name to be attached to a policy program known around the world rather than just to a small group of Japan-watchers.

In addition to economics, Abe made progress in the realm of security, particularly by expanding the scope of the Japanese Self-Defense Force’s (SDF) missions, despite the controversy surrounding such a step. (Article 9 of Japan’s constitution renounces war.) Although the role of the SDF has gradually increased over the past decades, Abe’s reforms marked notable advancements by, for example, giving Japan the right to exercise collective self-defense under certain conditions.

Abe’s political longevity also helped Japan’s foreign policy, giving the prime minister time to establish the necessary relationships with foreign leaders to promote his diplomatic and conceptual initiatives. One of the fruits of this effort was the vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific. Although the idea originated with Abe, it was adopted by the Trump administration and developed into a full-fledged U.S. strategy in 2017.

Under Abe, Japan also led negotiations for the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, a regional free trade agreement, after the United States pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2017. This was a rare case where Japan displayed leadership in a multilateral setting that did not involve the United States.

Of course, Abe’s lengthy tenure did not mean he achieved all his policy goals. Among other things, he was unable to make progress with North Korea over a dispute regarding Japanese nationals abducted by the country in the 1970s and 1980s or in curbing North Korea’s nuclear and missile threat. The prime minister also did not make any headway in Japan’s territorial dispute with Russia over the Kuril Islands, known as Northern Territories in Japan.

The question is not whether the LDP will gain seats but rather how many seats it will lose.

Nor is the duration of a prime minister’s term the only factor that determines their political power. Popular support—which Abe enjoyed for much of his time in office—is also important. Abe’s foreign and security policies moreover benefitted from a growing domestic consensus on the need to deal with new challenges in the region, most notably from an assertive China.

This is where the Oct. 31 election comes in. The LDP’s performance will be a measure of popular support for the party’s decision to make Kishida its leader and the pledges he campaigned on.

At this point, the question is not whether the LDP will gain seats but rather how many seats it will lose. The LDP has seen a drop in support in recent polls, and Kishida has set a modest goal of maintaining a majority in the lower house with the LDP’s coalition partner, Komeito. Prior to its dissolution on Oct. 14, the LDP held 276 of the 465 seats in Japan’s lower house, with Komeito at 29, meaning the LDP can afford to lose 72 seats and still achieve Kishida’s goal. Recent opinion polls have shown the coalition is likely to retain the majority. Whether the LDP can maintain its majority alone, however, is uncertain.

A better-than-expected outcome for the LDP on Sunday will help boost Kishida’s clout within the party, raising the likelihood that he will have the time and space to carry out his preferred policies. A lackluster result would decrease that likelihood and give Komeito more influence. It could also prompt the LDP to consider new leadership ahead of the House of Councillors election next summer. In either case, Kishida’s job would only become more complicated.

Naoko Aoki is a research associate at the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland and an adjunct professor at American University. Twitter: @naokoaoki

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