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Election Victories Empower Kishida’s Agenda for Japan

Abe’s killing may have boosted an already strong LDP vote.

By , a Tokyo-based journalist.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida speaks during a news conference.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida speaks during a news conference.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida speaks during a news conference following the release of election results at the LDP's headquarters in Tokyo on July 11. Rodrigo Reyes Marin/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

TOKYO—Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) strengthened its already tight hold on power in parliamentary elections on Sunday, an event overshadowed by the senseless killing of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a senior LDP figure, just two days before the vote. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida may now have the power he needs to push through major reforms—including some of the goals, such as a revision of the Japanese Constitution, that Abe had aimed at.

Japan’s National Diet elects half its members every three years, while the prime minister is selected by the House of Representatives, the lower house. With the new results, the LDP and its coalition partner, the more socially liberal Komeito, now have nearly 60 percent of seats in the House of Councillors, the upper house, and 63 percent in the House of Representatives. The LDP exceeded expectations, winning 63 seats of the 125 at stake, to take a comfortable majority in Japan’s less powerful House of Councillors. It was not clear what part Abe’s assassination played in boosting public support for the party. The clear loser was the main opposition party, the more liberal Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, which lost six seats to now control just 16 percent of the House of Councillors.

The elections were seen as a referendum on the leadership of Kishida, a former foreign minister who took power last September in a party leadership vote, making Sunday’s ballot the first opportunity for voters to have their say on his government. When he was selected, there were concerns that the affable Kishida was set to join the six out of his seven predecessors over the past 20 years who got to spend only a brief time at the top.

TOKYO—Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) strengthened its already tight hold on power in parliamentary elections on Sunday, an event overshadowed by the senseless killing of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a senior LDP figure, just two days before the vote. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida may now have the power he needs to push through major reforms—including some of the goals, such as a revision of the Japanese Constitution, that Abe had aimed at.

Japan’s National Diet elects half its members every three years, while the prime minister is selected by the House of Representatives, the lower house. With the new results, the LDP and its coalition partner, the more socially liberal Komeito, now have nearly 60 percent of seats in the House of Councillors, the upper house, and 63 percent in the House of Representatives. The LDP exceeded expectations, winning 63 seats of the 125 at stake, to take a comfortable majority in Japan’s less powerful House of Councillors. It was not clear what part Abe’s assassination played in boosting public support for the party. The clear loser was the main opposition party, the more liberal Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, which lost six seats to now control just 16 percent of the House of Councillors.

The elections were seen as a referendum on the leadership of Kishida, a former foreign minister who took power last September in a party leadership vote, making Sunday’s ballot the first opportunity for voters to have their say on his government. When he was selected, there were concerns that the affable Kishida was set to join the six out of his seven predecessors over the past 20 years who got to spend only a brief time at the top.

This revolving door was broken only by Abe, who led the country for a record eight years. He remained a strong force within the LDP following his resignation on 2020 and was campaigning for a local candidate in the recent elections when he was shot dead. The attacker blamed Abe for the financial ruin of his mother, who had given money to the Unification Church, to which Abe had loose ties.

Kishida is now in a stronger position to deliver on his campaign promises, especially his plan to create a “new form of capitalism.” This is an ambitious title but a real goal; Kishida wants to help the lower end of Japan’s economic spectrum, which was largely left out of the gains seen under Abe’s economic program, dubbed “Abenomics.” While corporate profits and stocks both surged in the Abe years, so did the wealth gap. Average wealth has fallen, save for the top 10 percent of the population, while Japan’s poverty rate is the second highest in the G-7.

“Abe’s stance had a pronounced influence over the Kishida administration’s economic policy, but Kishida may now seek to pursue his own priorities, such as wealth redistribution and a narrowing of income disparities,” said Kentaro Koyama, the chief Tokyo economist for Deutsche Securities.

This will be a crucial area for Kishida since preelection polls showed that voters were becoming more concerned about the economy as import prices rose. While consumer price inflation in Japan remains around just 2 percent, amazingly low by global standards, there are threats of cost-push “stagflation.” The Corporate Goods Price Index, the main measure for wholesale prices, surged 9.1 percent in May, while the Import Price Index was up 43.3 percent on a year-on-year basis, due in part to a weakening yen. Japan relies on imports for much of its raw materials and virtually all of its oil and natural gas.

There will also be close scrutiny on foreign policy, especially given the conservative faction in the LDP that was being led by Abe. Kishida is traditionally more moderate but has been aggressive in joining his G-7 allies and other countries in sanctions against Russia, a stark change from Japan’s usual slow-moving approach.

He has continued to pursue Abe’s signature policy of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” in a bid to rein in Chinese ambitions in the South China and East China seas and has tied this to his economic agenda, saying that reducing economic disparities is a key task for democracies. He also became the first Japanese leader to join in a NATO summit meeting, as Europe and non-China Asian nations forge closer security links.

At the same time, Kishida’s faction within the LDP, officially known as the Kochikai faction—which includes Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi—has traditionally been less openly hostile to Beijing. Kishida may seize on an opportunity to lower the rhetoric, if not the substance.

The biggest opportunity, however, lies in the potential to change Japan’s pacifist constitution. Largely drafted in 1947 by U.S. occupiers, it has long been a sore point among Japanese nationalists but has never been amended.

This was a long-held goal for Abe, but he failed to make headway over eight years. The current Diet makeup has more than the required two-thirds of members who say they are in favor of a constitutional change. But herein lies the difficulty: Not everyone agrees exactly what should be changed. The idea of axing the pacifist Article 9, in which Japan renounces the use of force in international conflicts and therefore will not have armed forces, is seen as highly unlikely.

Facing headwinds from a “small-c” conservatism in Japan that prefers the status quo, Abe gave up on that idea and instead advocated a more watered-down amendment that would specifically authorize the existence of the Japan Self-Defense Forces. This is now part of the LDP’s manifesto, although Komeito, which often serves as a brake on its coalition partner, is less enthusiastic. Komeito party head Natsuo Yamaguchi has often spoken of the need for public consensus on the issue, a theme he reiterated on Sunday.

At one level, the revision hardly seems necessary. The Self-Defense Forces, first created as the National Police Reserve in 1950, have grown into one of the world’s most powerful military forces in everything but name. Abe did manage to change the rules of engagement to embrace the idea of collective defense (mainly with its U.S. ally), but even that proved rough going. There were more than 200 hours of debate in the Diet over the move, and scholars remain at loggerheads over whether the provision is constitutional.

Others in favor of constitutional change point to more prosaic issues, such as mandated free education or the ability of the government to impose restrictions during national emergencies—a current limitation that arose in the COVID-19 pandemic. The big question is what the public will make of it all since any change approved by the Diet will need approval in a national referendum—which would be a first. No referendum on the constitution has actually been held. Amid the backdrop of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and growing worries about China’s actions in the South China and East China seas, public opinion has been shifting toward the need for a tougher Japanese stance, though.

“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a crisis that shakes the international order. It is necessary to discuss what to do with the constitution, including Article 9,” Kayo Takuma, a professor of law at Tokyo Metropolitan University, said in a commentary in the Nikkei newspaper.

A survey published in May by the left-leaning Asahi Shimbun showed 56 percent of Japanese voters in favor of revisions, saying they were concerned about the security environment. But the same survey found only 33 percent believed that Article 9 should be changed.

Kishida’s views on this are murky. He stated after the elections that he would take up the constitution issue as soon as possible. But there’s plenty of wiggle room in his statement. He could seize on the opportunity since the issue is now more at the forefront of discussion. But he also said dealing with inflation, the impact of the Russia-Ukraine war, and the continuing COVID-19 pandemic were all urgent matters, a fairly substantial set of policy imperatives that suggests the constitution question will have to wait in line. After all, the LDP has had the issue in its party platform since the 1950s, and the benefit of authorizing a force that already exists seems minimal in practice.

But whatever Kishida does, Sunday’s elections reinforced the primacy of the LDP, a party that has ruled the country for more than 60 years since its founding in 1955. Hopes among some political analysts that a true two-party system would emerge in the 1990s and 2000s seem as far away as ever. With the opposition now splintered between left and right and no elections scheduled for three years, any opposition to the government’s actions is likely to come from inside the factions of the LDP or from its Komeito partner.

Kathleen Benoza contributed reporting to this story.

William Sposato is a Tokyo-based journalist who has been a contributor to Foreign Policy since 2015. He has been following Japan’s politics and economics for more than 20 years, working at Reuters and the Wall Street Journal. He is also the co-author of a 2021 book on the Carlos Ghosn affair and its impact on Japan.

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