Japan election: Ruling LDP struggles over COVID, inequality

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida says LDP faces an ‘extremely tough’ situation in Sunday’s vote as polls project gains for the opposition.

Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, (centre), gestures during his party campaign for the upcoming general election in Tokyo on October 27, 2021 [Kazuhiro Nogi/ AFP]

Tokyo, Japan – Voters in Japan will head to the polls on Sunday with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s party fighting to save its majority in the lower house, amid frustration over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic as well as worsening economic inequality.

Prior to the dissolution of parliament for Sunday’s vote, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) had 276 seats in the 465-member chamber, while its coalition partner Komeito had 29.

While most polls predict a comfortable win for the LDP once again, the Nikkei and Yomiuri Shimbun dailies said on Friday that their polls show the ruling party alone will struggle to obtain a majority of 233 seats.

Meanwhile, Kishida, who succeeded the unpopular Yoshihide Suga a month ago, said on Monday that the party faces an “extremely tough” situation in the upcoming vote.

Part of the reason is that five main opposition parties have teamed up to field joint candidates in a large number of single-member districts. The other is that there are a large number of voters who are still undecided – perhaps as many as 40 percent.

Kyodo news agency, which polled 119,000 eligible voters, said on Wednesday that the large proportion of undecided voters means the “result could still swing in either direction”. The Asahi Shimbun newspaper, which polled 380,000 voters, also said it was “still possible for the tide to change toward voting day”.

In the Japanese capital, Tokyo, where the LDP took the most seats in a July city election but failed to win an outright majority, voters were divided on the ruling party’s prospects.

The LDP has governed Japan for all but four years since 1955 [Behrouz Mehri/ AFP]

Its supporters think despite LDP’s initial delays in responding to the pandemic, it is to be credited for ensuring 70 percent population is now fully vaccinated against the virus. They also note infection rates have now fallen to record lows this week, with Tokyo recording just 17 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday compared with 6,000 infections a day at the pandemic peak.

COVID-19 success

Mari Narahara, a 27-year-old marketing executive, says she will vote for the LDP in the hope of “improvements on policy responses to COVID-19 … to return more to everyday life, including having freedom to travel overseas and eat out”.

At least 18,000 people have died from COVID-19 in Japan since the pandemic began, while 1.7 million people have been infected.

The LDP’s critics say if the party had responded faster, Japan could have reduced the number of deaths from COVID-19. And they hope public dissatisfaction over the pandemic response (approval ratings for Kishida’s cabinet remain below 50 percent), as well as a united opposition, might bring an end to the LDP’s dominance in Japanese politics. The party has governed Japan for all but four years since 1955.

Sakurako Amatesaru, a kimono model, says she expects large numbers of people to turn out and vote against the LDP.

“I think reform is necessary. After experiencing corona, I think we need political parties to protect people’s health and economy,” she said. “I believe this election will increase voter turnout, which will end the one-party politics of the LDP.”

Sakurako Amaterasu says political parties must protect the economy and public health [Shiori Suzuki/ Al Jazeera]
Reiko Suzuki says she will vote for the Japanese Communist Party [Shiori Suzuki/ Al Jazeera]

Reiko Suzuki, an 86-year-old supporter of the Japanese Communist Party, also said “many people will vote for different political parties” on Sunday. “I believe that this will change the one-party politics of the LDP,” he said.

Kishida’s ‘New Capitalism’

Urara Ichihara, an English teacher, says she too expects “more people to vote for parties other than the LDP than before”. The 61-year-old says that while she has not yet decided which party to support, she certainly will not vote for the LDP.

“They [the LDP] have not handled the situation well so far and I feel they are not thinking about the people,” she said.

Chief among Ichihara’s concerns is Japan’s widening wealth gap, which many of the governing party’s critics attribute to “Abenomics”, the signature economic policy platform of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, an LDP legislator who was Japan’s longest-serving prime minister when he announced his resignation in 2020.

While received well initially, “Abenomics” has been criticised for boosting the profits of companies, without improving the real wages of workers.

Kishida has taken that criticism on board, and has pledged to address income inequality, by calling for a “new capitalism” that he says would “raise the income and salaries of as many people as possible”.

But beyond tax incentives for companies that raise worker wages, critics say the prime minister has provided little detail on how he plans to tackle the issue.

Neither has the opposition, however.

At least, according to recent editorials in the Mainichi and Asahi Shimbun newspapers.

“At the October 18 leaders’ debate in the Diet, most of the parties stressed economic ‘redistribution’. However, none had a good explanation for how specifically this would be done and where the funding would come from,” lamented an editorial in the Mainichi last week.

“The parties must take a hard look at the wealth distortions in Japanese society, and compete on their compelling visions for how to fix it.”

Mitsuru Umemoto says all Japanese political parties ‘will be the same’ [Shiori Suzuki/ Al Jazeera]
Mustumi Kato says Japan’s opposition parties will also increase their number of seats this time [Shiori Suzuki/ Al Jazeera]

Mitsuru Umemoto, a 64-year-old business owner, agrees that the policy solutions on offer were neither varied nor inspiring.

“I honestly feel that it doesn’t matter which party I vote for,” said the undecided voter. “They will all be the same.”

Still, Umemoto – who says he is most concerned about the economy and public health – says he will vote. And although he has still to make his choice, the businessman expects the LDP to win again.

Mutsumi Kato, a 60-year-old lobbyist, also says she believes the LDP is on course for another victory.

“But I think the opposition party will also increase the number of seats this time,” she said.

“I believe that the proper reforms will be carried out if the number of seats of the LDP and the opposition parties is balanced.”

Shiori Suzuki contributed reporting from Tokyo, Japan. 

Source: Al Jazeera