By-election Results Reduce Japan PM’s Options for Timing of Diet Dissolution

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Liberal Democratic Party Secretary General Toshimitsu Motegi speaks to reporters at the party’s headquarters in Tokyo on Sunday.

The ruling parties found themselves on the back foot Sunday after fighting two by-elections in which they lost the Tokushima-Kochi Constituency for the House of Councillors and squeaked a narrow victory in Nagasaki No. 4 Constituency, their traditional power base in the House of Representatives.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is keen to bolster his administration through an economic stimulus package that include income tax cuts. However, he seems to have increasingly fewer options regarding when to dissolve the lower house.

‘Tough contests’

“Winning in Nagasaki was a big deal,” LDP Secretary General Toshimitsu Motegi told reporters late Sunday night at the party’s headquarters. “I knew both by-elections would be tough. We accept the results in a humble manner and will face Diet debates with a sense of urgency.”

The party had expected a poor showing in the Tokushima-Kochi race that took place following the resignation of a former LDP lawmaker who later left the party over alleged violent behavior.

In the Nagasaki race, held following the death of former Minister of State for Regional Revitalization Seigo Kitamura, the LDP is deeply concerned that party candidate Yozo Kaneko struggled against the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan counterpart.

Kitamura belonged to the Kishida faction, and the group’s members made every effort to secure election victory, with Kishida visiting Nagasaki on Oct. 15 to support Kaneko by delivering a stump speech.

In the prefecture, Kaneko’s father Genjiro — a former upper house member and agriculture, forestry and fisheries minister — had been at odds with Kitamura, although both were members of the Kishida faction. Against this background, Kishida personally called the prefecture’s lawmakers in a bid to resolve the grudge and secure the by-election.

Following the victory, Kishida called Kaneko’s office — a rare action for prime minister — thanking supporters while on speaker mode, saying, “This was an important election for Nagasaki, and Japan.”

However, one party member said: “Our party deserved a big win here.” But some in the party are concerned that the prime minister is being seen as the “face of the election campaign.”

Tight schedule

Following the election results, Kishida is expected to carefully reexamine his options for dissolving the lower house.

The earliest possible timing is when the Diet passes a supplementary budget bill —aimed to provide a financial fillip to Kishida’s economic measures — during the current extraordinary Diet session. A budget bill is expected to be submitted to the Diet on or around Nov. 20, and will likely to be approved by the end of November.

Kishida on Friday instructed the ruling parties to discuss income tax cuts. Speculation continues to linger that he will appeal to public sentiment by presenting concrete measures to counter high prices in a supplementary budget bill, in addition to envisaged income tax cuts.

However, this scenario would have an extremely tight schedule. If the lower house were to be dissolved immediately after the passage of a budget bill, voting would likely take place on Dec. 17. However, a special summit meeting between Japan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is schedule to be held in Tokyo around that period.

If a post-dissolution election were to take place during that time, decisions relating to ruling parties’ outline for tax system reforms and the budget for the next fiscal year — usually compiled at the end of the year — may be postponed.

An LDP executive member said. “The scheduling problem and the by-election results put our party in a weakened position. The prospects for holding an election within the year look remote.”

Retaining seats

If a dissolution does not occur within the year, it could be variously scheduled to occur on a number of occasions: after the opening of an ordinary Diet session in January; after the tax-related bills and the budget for the next fiscal year have been passed; after the implementation of income tax cuts; or around the time that Kishida’s term as LDP president expires in September.

Regardless of when the dissolution takes place, Kishida must strive to elevate his administration from its present position.

A major issue for the prime minister is whether the ruling parties can hold on to their 262 lower house seats. Even if the ruling parties were to retain power in a general election, securing fewer seats than before would weaken Kishida’s position, jeopardizing his potential reelection as LDP president.

“A single win and a single loss in the recent by-elections has only deepened the prime minister’s anxiety,” a former Cabinet member said.