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Japan Politics Now June

last updated july 5

The Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly Election has ended after a fierce contest in Japan’s capital. In addition to determining control of Tokyo’s legislative body, the poll is a bellwether for the general election likely to take place in September. It also served as something of a referendum on the performance of Tokyo Governor Koike Yuriko.

Tomin First no Kai, the party founded by Koike, is no longer the largest bloc in the assembly, with 31 seats in the 127-seat body, down from 45. The LDP won 33 seats, successfully earning the top spot, but failing to gain a majority in the assembly with its junior coalition partner, Komeito, which kept its 23 seats. The main opposition party, The Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, won 15 seats, while the Japan Communist Party won 19 seats. The remaining 6 went to non-aligned or other party candidates. Voter turnout was less than 42.4%.

Tokyo Assembly Seat Changes, ©Langley Esquire, Tokyo 2021

For the LDP, the election offers and early indicator of how a national election could look under Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide, and provided the Tokyo chapter of the party something of a chance to avenge its 2017 loss to Tomin First no Kai. Suga’s support among the public has dropped with the rise in coronavirus infections, and a solid performance would have helped his position within the LDP and helped steel lawmakers nervous about heading into a national election under his leadership. However, while the LDP won back some of the seats it lost in 2017, the party performed well short of expectations, and the election is unlikely to provide Suga with much of a tailwind.

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The opposition parties will similarly look to glean hints about what to expect in the upcoming lower house election. During the eight-year premiership of Abe Shinzo, the opposition struggled to gain ground in the lower house, and it suffered a catastrophic split ahead of the 2017 general election. This was the first chance to fight the LDP under new leadership, and it was eager to play on public dissatisfaction with the government’s response to the pandemic. One of the main takeaways for the opposition will likely be that coordinating which districts will field candidates from which parties is critical to success. That strategy, which some have questioned in the past, served the JCP and CDP well.

In addition to impacting Suga’s status as head of the LDP, the election will also have major implications for the political future of Koike. Koike, a conservative who joined and left the LDP, is personally popular among Tokyo voters, but the party she founded had lagged in opinion polls. Koike initially made little effort to leverage her personal status for the party’s benefit, raising questions about her commitment to the party that rocketed to prominence in the last assembly election. The governor took an extended hospitalization for fatigue prior to the election, which limited campaign efforts. She only campaigned for two days before the election, but that may have been enough to save her party from a total rout.

Ultimately, the results of the Tokyo Metropolitan Elections are ambiguous. The LDP and Komeito failed to gain a majority, and at the same time, Koike’s Tomin First no Kai lost its top position. The opposition gained strength, but it is unclear that it can leverage this pickup outside the highly contested capital. The results will certainly loom large as the country looks to the upcoming general election this fall.

Domestic Politics:

LDP Fails to Advance LGBT Law

Despite a press from Inada Tomomi (LDP) and others, social conservatives in the LDP succeeded in blocking action on a bill that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The bill was put together by a multi-partisan group of lawmakers, and it had the support of the opposition CDP. The failure to move the bill through the Diet is a major disappointment to progressives and activists who hoped the Olympics would provide a political tailwind to make passage easier.

Langley Insight: Although LDP conservatives cited questions about the wording of the bill, political concern about the upcoming lower house election undoubtedly played a significant role in their opposition. Although polls have consistently shown that majorities of LDP supporters favor greater LDP rights, social conservative voters are a reliable voting bloc and among the more active supporters during election periods. As in other developed countries, however, the ground is shifting rapidly on this issue, and social conservatives will soon likely find themselves playing defense. Although the opportunity of timing the passage with the Olympics has passed by, sustained pressure and activism will likely find success down the road.

Former Prime Minister Abe Floats List of Suga Successors

In an interview with a conservative magazine, former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo named Foreign Minister Motegi Toshimitsu, Chief Cabinet Secretary Kato Katsunobu, LDP policy research chief Shimomura Hakubun, and former Foreign Minister Kishida Fumio as potential successors to current Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide. During the same interview Abe reiterated his support for Suga and said that if the LDP emerges victorious in the next lower house election, Suga should remain the head of the LDP and prime minister.

Langley Insight: Although Abe couched his recommendations with his commitment to supporting Suga, it is nonetheless noteworthy that someone with Abe’s political clout would offer alternate candidates to the sitting prime minister. Any candidate vying for the LDP’s top spot would covet Abe’s endorsement — Kishida went to Abe to seek his support in the previous LDP leadership race. With his health back under control and less pressure on his daily schedule, Abe is now well positioned to play kingmaker within the LDP. Additionally, there was one notable absence from Abe’s list: Administrative Reform Minister Kono Taro, who has made no secret of his ambition to become prime minister and polls as the public’s favorite for Japan’s top spot.

Former Economy Minister Sugawara Isshu to Resign over Donation Scandal

Sugawara Isshu (LDP, HR), a former minister of the economy, trade and industry, will resign from the Diet due to suspicions that he made illegal donations to his constituents. Reports indicate that Sugawara made donations worth ¥300,000 for flowers and consolation money for funerals from 2017 to 2019. Sugawara was fined ¥400,000 and barred from running for public office for three years.

Langley Insight: Although Sugawara’s donations were not particularly nefarious, money scandals inevitably create bad press. Considering Sugawara’s relatively high profile, and that his scandal follows on those of former LDP lawmakers Kawai Anri and Kawai Katsuyuki, the scandal provides more ammunition for the opposition heading into the upcoming lower house election. The headlines about Sugawara will have faded by the time of the election, likely this fall, but these scandals will be baked into the public consciousness, making it easier for the opposition to paint the LDP as corrupt and unconcerned with the population’s general welfare.

CDP Shoots Down Joint Government with JCP

Opposition Parties

Constitutional Democratic Party leader Edano Yukio (CDP, HR) ended any speculation about the Japan Communist Party entering the government if the opposition wins the next general election. Edano said that a joint administration with the JCP would “quickly fall,” and that “the Diet would ground to a halt” over differences in policy. He nonetheless wants to move forward in coordinating with the JCP in fielding candidates during the upcoming election. The JCP had indicated it was eager to cooperate, and had tried to assuage the CDP’s concerns, saying the opposition parties could overcome policy differences. But other senior figures in the CDP, including former Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko and former Foreign Minister Okada Katsuya, were unwilling to bring the JCP into government.

Langley Insight: Coordination among the opposition parties is crucial to ensure that the anti-LDP vote is not split among multiple candidates in single-member districts. However, the Japanese Trade Union Federation (Rengo), Japan’s largest affiliation of labor unions and one the CDP’s most powerful organizational supporters, is strongly against including the JCP in government. Rikio Kozu, the outgoing Rengo president, said in a speech in Tokyo that the JCP is not a democratic organization and that it has totally different ideas about how society should function. Kozu argued that while coordination may attract the votes of some JCP supporters, it will also drive away more moderate voters. Kozu highlighted the JCP’s positions on Japan’s security policy and the imperial system as reasons why the party should be excluded from government, but he left one significant difference unsaid: nuclear power. The private-sector unions affiliated with Rengo support the use of nuclear power, but the JCP is firmly opposed to it. In drawing up its policy platform last year, the CDP avoided using the term “zero nuclear power,” reflecting Rengo’s position.

Division Grows Within LDP

Divisions within the ruling LDP are emerging after long being kept in check by the overwhelming influence of former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and his faction. A party caucus focused on semiconductors and led by party heavyweight Amari Akira and a caucus focused on the Indo-Pacific region led by LDP Secretary-General Nikai Toshihiro are exposing rivalries within the ruling party. The former group, which features the “3As” — Abe Shinzo, Finance Minister Aso Taro, and Amari Akiri — is widely seen as a check on the influence of Nikai and his faction. Nikai’s caucus also boasts Abe Shinzo as an advisor.

Langley Insight: Nikai’s early support for Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide in the wake of Abe’s resignation earned his faction multiple significant positions in the party and the government. The brewing dustup is focused on who will take which positions after the next general election or the LDP leadership election, both of which are slated for fall. Factional infighting has been commonplace throughout much of the LDP’s history. However, an escalation of the intra-party conflict just before the next election could demoralize party supporters and depress its voter turnout. The conflict also presents a dilemma for Suga, who does not have a strong support base within the party. If the party leadership election comes before the general election, the infighting may spill further into the open and impact the party’s election prospects.

Foreign Affairs:

G7 Leaders Offer Backing for Tokyo Olympics

Leaders of the Group of 7 countries gave Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide their support for the Tokyo Olympics, set to start in July. “We reiterate our support for the holding of the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 in a safe and secure manner as a symbol of global unity in overcoming COVID-19,” the nations wrote in a joint statement after the leaders’ summit in June.

Langley Insight: Domestic opposition to the Olympic games has steadily been dropping as the event approaches, and the G7 statement provides Suga with some assurance that there would be no high-profile cancelations. Individual athletes or teams may refuse to compete, but the G7 governments will not bar their teams from attending. The politics of the Olympics for the Suga Administration remain largely unchanged — leaders are betting they can safely hold the event without super-spreader events, which will buoy the administration’s popularity and demonstrate that it can effectively manage the new coronavirus. A major outbreak, however, could prove to be politically disastrous. With opposition among the public fading and the assurance that other major teams will be attending, any further postponement or cancelation is almost certainly out of the question.

NHK Polling:

Both approval and disapproval ticked upward in June, but the underlying political conditions the Suga Administration faces are largely unchanged. The Tokyo election and the Olympics in July could start to turn voter preferences more sharply. All politicians will look to capitalize on these events as much as possible to insert themselves into public discussion ahead of the fall political season.

Cabinet: 37% support (+2pp), 45% do not support (+2pp)
Parties: LDP 35.8%, CDP 6.4%, Komeito 3.5%, Ishin 2.1%, JCP 2.8%, DPP 0.5%

Suga Cabinet Approval Rate June 2021

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