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In blow to Kishida, exit poll suggests LDP majority is under threat


Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is on course for a humiliating setback, with his ruling Liberal Democratic Party set to lose dozens of seats in Sunday’s general election — barely clinging on to a simple majority of its own in the powerful House of Representatives or perhaps even losing it — according to exit polls.

NHK’s exit poll predicted the LDP will win between 212 and 253 seats, down from the 276 seats it had before the election. The LDP’s coalition partner Komeito will get somewhere between 27 and 35 seats, compared with the 29 seats it had at the Diet’s dissolution.

Combined, the ruling coalition is predicted to secure between 239 and 288 seats, exceeding a simple majority of 233. But it is unclear if it will reach an “absolute stable majority” of 261, a scenario under which all standing committees could be chaired by a ruling party member and the majority of all committee members could belong to the ruling coalition — enabling the ruling parties to pass bills smoothly.

Kyodo News, meanwhile, projected that the ruling coalition will secure a simple majority but will still be left with a significant reduction in parliamentary seats, considering the coalition held a total of 305 seats before.

“It’s a severe result,” LDP Secretary-General Akira Amari told NHK soon after 8 p.m., when the polls closed, blaming himself for the result.

Symbolizing the LDP’s fortunes in the election, party veteran Nobuteru Ishihara lost his seat in the Tokyo No. 8 district, where he was defeated by a unified candidate backed by the opposition, Kyodo News reported.

Voters fill in their ballots for the Lower House election at a polling station in Tokyo on Sunday. | REUTERS
Voters fill in their ballots for the Lower House election at a polling station in Tokyo on Sunday. | REUTERS

Meanwhile, it is looking to be a happier night for the opposition. The NHK survey projected the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) will secure between 99 and 141 seats, compared with a pre-election strength of 109.

A notable change in this election is the remarkable advance of right-leaning Nippon Ishin no Kai as a “third pole,” with the group becoming a favorite pick for voters dissatisfied with both the ruling coalition and left-leaning opposition parties. Nippon Ishin is expected to win between 34 and 47 seats, according to the NHK exit poll, an at least threefold increase from its tally before the election, which was 11. The party, which originated in Osaka and is run by Osaka Mayor Ichiro Matsui, apparently gave a strong showing in the western prefecture.

The party fielded 94 candidates nationwide, an increase of more than 40 compared with the last general election in 2017.

The projected decrease in the LDP’s seat count will throw a wet blanket on Kishida’s leadership and legislative agenda, despite his administration still being at an early stage when it would normally be enjoying a honeymoon period. One immediate consequence is that the LDP will be even more dependent on Komeito, and it could even be forced to turn to Nippon Ishin to pass bills and budgets.

Key issues in this election included the economy, the coronavirus response and the ruling coalition’s record over its nine-year reign. Although Kishida has laid out several policy goals, most have been abstract. This means the prime minister, who has been in power for less than a month, lacks tangible achievements on which voters can base their decisions.

If the exit poll data is accurate, it would indicate voters’ rejection of the ruling parties’ track record — especially that of Kishida’s predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, who struggled to contain waves of the coronavirus. In addition, voters might have demonstrated their skepticism toward Kishida’s ability to shake up old-school LDP politics — as he has pledged — and deliver on campaign promises.

Voters cast their ballots in the Lower House election at a polling station in Tokyo on Sunday. | AFP-JIJI
Voters cast their ballots in the Lower House election at a polling station in Tokyo on Sunday. | AFP-JIJI

It is unlikely that Kishida will immediately step down, but the seat projections raise the question of whether he can remain as prime minister in the long term, especially as an Upper House election is slated for next summer.

With Kishida left on shaky ground, he faces the daunting challenges of rallying a skeptical public and fulfilling campaign pledges, especially on his promise to empower the middle class by generating a positive cycle of growth and wealth redistribution. He has already backpedaled on a proposal to raise the capital gains tax.

When the Diet is reconvened, Kishida is also expected to immediately compile an economic stimulus package, which could be approved by the end of the year.

One cause of the LDP’s loss of seats is believed to be the relative success of the efforts by left-leaning and centrist opposition parties to consolidate candidates. The five parties — the CDP, the JCP, the DPP, the SDP and Reiwa — have fielded unified candidates in more than 210 single-member districts to avoid splitting the opposition vote.

In past Lower House elections, similar efforts were unsuccessful, primarily because the opposition parties were divided. Although the CDP and JCP have fundamental differences in their views on diplomatic and defense issues, this time they prioritized defeating the LDP and Komeito — their common political foe.

Kishida announced that he would dissolve the House of Representatives on the same day he came to power on Oct. 4. With Lower House lawmakers’ terms approaching their expiration on Oct. 21, the prime minister insisted on holding the election as early as possible to minimize a political vacuum at a time when the nation is reeling from the pandemic and facing growing national security threats from neighboring countries. The Lower House was dissolved on Oct. 14.

Voters fill in their ballots at a polling station in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward on Sunday. | BLOOMBERG
Voters fill in their ballots at a polling station in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward on Sunday. | BLOOMBERG

A potentially important factor in the outcome is the notable nationwide drop in COVID-19 cases seen in recent weeks.

The LDP’s prospects of winning seats and maintaining a sufficient majority would likely have been diminished in a situation where the daily virus figures were rising again as the country headed into winter, based on trends under the previous administration, which saw the Cabinet’s approval ratings fall as coronavirus cases rose.

Kishida replaced Yoshihide Suga, whose approval ratings had plummeted to dangerous levels as Suga struggled to contain record coronavirus numbers over the summer even though the figures were considerably lower than Western countries.

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