Japanese Prime Minister and Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leader Fumio Kishida (3rd from left) delivers a speech during an election campaign in Saitama on October 30, 2021, a day before the general election. AFP PHOTO
TOKYO: The polls opened in Japan’s general election on Sunday, with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida hoping to win over pandemic-weary audiences with spending pledges as his longtime conservatives seek a fresh start.
Kishida became leader of the Liberal Democratic Party a month ago after Yoshihide Suga stepped down just a year after taking office, in part due to public discontent with his response to the Covid-19 crisis.
After a record spate of infections that pushed the Tokyo Olympics behind closed doors, cases have now dropped and most restrictions have been lifted.
While this may alleviate the frustrations of some voters, the PLD – which has held power almost continuously since the 1950s – is likely to lose seats and could struggle to retain its dominant majority, analysts say.
Kishida, 64, has pledged to issue a new stimulus package worth tens of billions of yen to counter the impact of the pandemic on the world’s third-largest economy.
He also presented plans to distribute wealth more equitably under a so-called “new capitalism”, although details remain vague for now.
But Japan’s 106 million voters “struggled to be excited about the new prime minister,” said Stefan Angrick, senior economist at Moody’s Analytics.
“Kishida faces headwinds due to low ratings and more coordinated opposition, but an improving Covid-19 situation and economic outlook are factors in her favor.”
Across Japan, 1,051 candidates are running for election to the lower house of parliament.
Over the past decades, votes against the PLD have been split between several major opposition parties, but this time five rival parties have stepped up cooperation in an attempt to reduce its grip.
Nevertheless, the PLD enjoys “great advantages” in the Japanese political arena, Michael Cucek, assistant professor of Asian studies at Temple University, told AFP.
“The electoral system is tilted in their favor,” he said, as the party has a strong network of supporters across the country.
The LDP wants to put a tumultuous year behind it, but “the fact that they still have to fight so hard is, for them, very embarrassing,” Cucek said.
Revolving door risk
Kishida has not had a political honeymoon, with approval ratings of around 50%, the lowest in two decades for a new administration in Japan.
He set himself a comfortable goal of winning 233 of the 465 seats in the lower house – a simple majority including lawmakers from the PLD’s junior coalition partner, Komeito.
However, such a result would be seen as a setback for the LDP, which previously alone held 276 seats.
Even if the party wins, a poor performance could lead to losses in next summer’s upper house vote, risking a return to history for Japan’s revolving-door prime ministers, analysts warn.
If Kishida “drives the party into a loss of seats, a clock starts ticking in the minds of his rivals,” Cucek said.
Since World War II, only five politicians have hung on to the prime minister’s office for five years or more, with some only lasting two months.
Suga’s predecessor, Shinzo Abe, was the longest-serving prime minister in Japanese history, ruling from 2012 to 2020 after his first one-year term.
Moody’s Analytics’ Angrick said Kishida needs to show that he can do more than just provide stability.
“Kishida will have to convince the public and the young members of his party that continuity does not mean the status quo, but rather maintaining what worked and improving what did not work,” he said. he declares.
In addition to pledging to fight the pandemic and work to boost the middle class, the PLD has said it will aim to increase defense spending to counter threats from China and North Korea.
Meanwhile, some opposition parties have stressed their support for social issues Kishida has so far shied away from, such as same-sex marriage and allowing married couples to have different last names.