LDP out in front but election far from over

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida gives a speech to voters in Matsuyama on Thursday.

With campaigning for the House of Councillors election in full swing, the Liberal Democratic Party has a healthy lead, according to a Yomiuri Shimbun survey, but the main ruling party is refusing to count its chickens before they hatch.

The survey revealed that rising prices sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the depreciating yen are having a direct impact on people’s day-to-day lives, which is leading to discontent with the government. This gives the ruling parties reason to feel concern.

After completing an official engagement in Okinawa Prefecture on Thursday, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida traveled to Matsuyama and gave a public address urging voters there to support the ruling coalition.

“Only the administration of the LDP and Komeito can overcome the various problems confronting Japan and carve out a new future,” said Kishida, who also is LDP president.

Kishida visited three prefectures in the Tohoku region on Wednesday as part of the campaign to shore up support for the LDP, especially in constituencies with just one seat being contested, which will have a significant bearing on determining the election’s winners and losers.

The Yomiuri survey indicated the LDP holds an advantage at this early stage in the race. In the proportional representation segment, the LDP would currently receive 3.6 times as many votes as Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Innovation Party), the opposition party with the highest level of support.

“The approval rating for the Cabinet and our party is staying at a stable level,” LDP Secretary General Toshimitsu Motegi told The Yomiuri Shimbun on Thursday. “We’ll stay on our toes and try to produce a good result in the election.”

Public support for the Cabinet has started to dip, but the broad consensus within the LDP is that this is no cause for panic. “The approval rate had been a little too high,” said Toshiaki Endo, chair of the LDP’s Election Strategy Committee.

In a survey conducted at a similar stage of the 2019 upper house election, 36% of respondents — the same figure as in the latest survey — said they would vote for the LDP in the proportional representation segment. The LDP clinched 57 seats on the way to victory in that election.

However, there are still some jitters within the ruling parties over their election prospects. According to the survey, 71% of respondents said they did not approve of the government’s response to rising prices, which greatly eclipsed the 20% who supported the government’s handling of this issue. The survey also revealed that at least 80% of voters are tangibly feeling the effects of climbing prices.

During his stump speech, Kishida took great pains to deflect criticism of his administration by insisting that surging prices were the result of “an [external] emergency situation.” A senior official of one of the ruling parties feared that this issue could dent the party’s election chances. “If prices keep rising, people will take an increasingly dim view of the administration,” the official said.

The LDP held a strong position in the early stages of the 1998 upper house election. However, then Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto’s mixed messages on permanent tax cuts and other factors combined to culminate in a heavy defeat. The LDP went into the election with 61 of the seats that were up for grabs, but after the votes were cast it ended up with only 45 of them (including one seat won by a candidate who joined the party after the election).

Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi intends to use street speeches and other occasions to explain how his party will deal with rising prices. “It’s vital to be persuasive in detailing concrete policies that will address the increased cost of living,” Yamaguchi said to reporters in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture, on Thursday.

The opposition parties intend to shine a spotlight on rising prices in a bid to boost support from voters. “The government lacks a plan for tackling higher prices. We’ll raise our voices to change that,” Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan leader Kenta Izumi said Thursday.

Democratic Party for the People leader Yuichiro Tamaki said, “We’ll push for policies that will have an immediate effect, such as a ¥100,000 handout.”

As things stand, all opposition parties lag far behind the LDP in public support rates and as the likely recipients of votes in the proportional representation segment. When asked which policies or issues they felt were important, 72% of voters who responded to the survey selected “social security, including pensions” — greater than the 70% who chose “measures to combat rising prices.” Respondents could give more than one answer to that question. Demands by seven opposition parties that the consumption tax be abolished or reduced could struggle to gain traction among voters because such a step might result in social security spending cuts.

Opposition struggles

The nationwide survey revealed that although more than 70% of voters are discontented with the government’s handling of rising prices, this is not directly translating into greater support for opposition parties.

When asked which policies and issues would have the most weight when deciding which party to vote for (with multiple answers allowed), the most common answer — chosen by 80% of respondents — was “the economy and employment.” This was followed by “social security, including pensions” (72%) and “measures to combat rising prices” (70%).

In a survey conducted before the House of Representatives election in October last year, “measures for dealing with the novel coronavirus pandemic” was cited by 70% of respondents, but this figure plunged to 46% in the latest survey. This indicates voters have shifted their focus more toward the economy.

Seventy-one percent of respondents disapproved of the government’s response to rising prices, and only 20% supported the government’s handling of this issue. Even among ruling party supporters, 61% did not applaud the government’s response, and this figure climbed to 84% of opposition party supporters and 79% of people who did not support any particular party.

Of respondents who did not approve of the government’s handling of rising prices, 32% — the highest figure — intended to vote for the LDP in the proportional representation segment, a commanding lead over the 11% who would cast a ballot for Ishin and the 9% who were keen on the CDPJ. Komeito had the support of 5% of these disapproving voters.

Eighty-three percent of respondents said they felt rising prices were pinching their household budget. Among these respondents, 36% said they would vote for the LDP, followed by 10% for Ishin and 8% for the CDPJ.

According to the survey, 23% of respondents “have not decided” which party to vote for in the proportional representation race. Of them, 77% did not approve of the government’s handling of the rising cost of living, a proportion slightly higher than the overall disapproval rate. Undecided voters could lean toward backing opposition parties after listening to the arguments each party puts forward during the election campaign.

According to the survey, 64% of respondents said “diplomacy and security” was a crucial election issue, down eleven percentage points from a survey conducted from June 3 to 5.

Although “constitutional revision” was an important issue for just 33% of respondents, this still represented a jump from the 25% recorded in a survey before last year’s lower house election. Observers believe this increase could have been the result of factors including the commissions on the Constitution of both Diet chambers holding regular meetings during the previous ordinary Diet session, and the positive approach toward revision shown by Ishin and the DPFP.