Crunching the key numbers in the lower house election

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida bumps fists with Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, second from left, in the Diet after the House of Representatives was dissolved on Thursday.

The House of Representatives was dissolved Thursday, setting the stage for a lower house election in which various political parties will measure success — or otherwise — by three key numbers: 233, 150 and 310.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is hoping to capitalize on the momentum of his newly launched Cabinet to shore up the administration of the Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner, Komeito.

The main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan will cooperate with the Japanese Communist Party and others in the election to be held on Oct. 31, as they seek to seize the reins of power.

Kishida did not mince his words when he answered reporters’ questions at a press conference held Thursday evening at the Prime Minister’s Office. “The ruling parties will secure a majority of seats,” Kishida said. “That is the bottom line for determining victory.”

Kishida’s definition of victory, therefore, requires the ruling coalition to win at least 233 of the lower house’s 465 seats.

This does not appear to be a particularly lofty target, given that the LDP and Komeito held 305 seats before the dissolution. Even so, 233 seats is the “absolute minimum” necessary, as LDP Secretary General Akira Amari said, to ensure the LDP-Komeito coalition holds onto power.

The public approval rating for the Cabinet of former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga plunged toward the end of his term in office, amid a barrage of criticism aimed at his administration’s handling of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

A survey conducted by the LDP in August estimated that the party would lose almost 40 of the 276 seats it held in the lower house — a stunning result that had alarm bells ringing among LDP members. If the party suffered defeats in closely contested constituencies, “It’s even possible the ruling coalition could lose its majority and tumble into the opposition camp,” a mid-ranking LDP lawmaker said.

However, Suga’s announcement in September that he would step down and the launch of Kishida’s Cabinet have lifted much of the gloom swirling around the LDP.

According to a Yomiuri Shimbun survey conducted on Oct. 4 and 5, 56% of respondents said they approved of the Cabinet — a jump of 25 percentage points from the 31% approval rating at the end of the Suga administration in a survey conducted on Sept. 4 and 5. The LDP also got a boost from the attention gained during the four-way race in the party’s presidential election.

“The Kishida administration’s arrival has created a positive atmosphere,” Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi said to reporters in Tokyo on Thursday.

Even so, support for the new Cabinet fell well short of the 74% rating given to the Suga Cabinet immediately after its launch. It remains unclear whether this bump in support for Kishida’s Cabinet will bring the party a gain of seats in the lower house.

The LDP conducted another survey earlier this month to get a sense of its prospects in the upcoming election.

“We are past the worst period,” Amari said of the results in a TV program that aired on Tuesday. “But I can’t tell whether the high approval rate will lead to an increase in the number of seats we win.”

As the LDP won big in the last lower house election in 2017, some party officials seem to be prepared to lose seats. An executive official said, “We already have a view that the number of our seats will decrease. In this election, we’d be satisfied if the party can maintain its majority alone.”

Stepped-up cooperation among the opposition parties has Amari on guard against any complacency. “We can never afford to be too optimistic,” Amari said.

If the LDP clears the line Kishida set as constituting a victory but the party loses 44 or more seats and is unable to form a majority on its own, the prime minister’s responsibility may be called into question.

CDPJ seeking 150 seats

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan leader Yukio Edano addresses party lawmakers from both houses on Thursday.

Meanwhile, CDPJ leader Yukio Edano has expressed his desire for a change in government. “We’ve completed our preparations to position ourselves as an option to form the next administration,” Edano said to reporters at the Diet after the lower house was dissolved.

The CDPJ plans to field at least 233 candidates in the election. However, public support for the CDPJ remains low.

In a Yomiuri Shimbun poll, just 7% of respondents supported the party, far below the 43% who were cheering for the LDP. The chances of the CDPJ single-handedly seizing power are, in reality, very slim.

Edano himself is aware of this. He has stated the probability of a change in government at this election is “about the same as the batting average” of Los Angeles Angels baseball star Shohei Ohtani — .257.

A senior CDPJ official said, “The key is whether we can get 150 seats this time so that we can take power in the next election.”

The now-defunct Democratic Party of Japan achieved a change in government in the 2009 lower house election after winning 177 seats in the preceding election in 2003, the start of an era in which two large parties dominated the political stage.

Suga’s departure from the scene has thrown a curveball at the CDPJ’s calculations. Three elections in April to fill one seat in the lower house and two in the upper were won by the opposition, and an opposition-backed candidate won Yokohama’s mayoral election in August.

“If Suga is still leader of the LDP, we can force the party to fall below a majority,” a senior CDPJ official said at the time.

However, the CDPJ now must contend with Kishida, which has forced a change of strategy. A member of the party whispered that if the CDPJ ends up with less than the 110 seats it held when the lower house was dissolved, the party would need to overhaul its executive lineup, including Edano.

A key focus of attention in this election will be whether the CDPJ can boost its support by working with the JCP.

On Wednesday, the JCP withdrew candidates from 22 constituencies, reducing the number of constituencies in which the JCP and CDPJ will both field candidates to about 50. The CDPJ, JCP and three other opposition parties — the Democratic Party for the People, Reiwa Shinsengumi and the Social Democratic Party — are expected to jointly support a single candidate in at least 200 of the 289 single-seat constituencies.

CDPJ Policy Research Council Chairperson Kenta Izumi said at a press conference Thursday, “We’ll work hard to ensure the opposition parties pool their strengths and reach the goal of a majority.”

Two-thirds majority

The third key figure looming in the election is 310 — two-thirds of seats in the lower house and the threshold that must be met for initiating amendments to the Constitution in the Diet.

“It’s unreasonable to think that we will secure a two-thirds majority in this election,” Kishida said at a press conference.

Indeed, attention will be focused on whether the LDP, Komeito and political forces that favor constitutional amendment, such as Nippon Ishin no Kai and the DPFP, can collectively rake in 310 seats.

The two ruling parties and the pro-amendment forces held 338 seats in total — above the two-thirds mark — when the lower house was dissolved. During the previous ordinary Diet session, a bill to revise the National Referendum Law was passed, making it easier to hold a referendum on changing the nation’s top law. The environment needed to hold such a referendum also has been steadily put in place.

The LDP has proposed four key changes to the top law, including clearly stipulating the legal status of the Self-Defense Forces and introducing a state-of-emergency clause. While campaigning for the LDP presidential election, Kishida said he “would aim to realize those goals during his tenure.”

However, political parties remain far apart when it comes to the specifics of which parts of the Constitution should be revised.

Komeito opposes establishing a state-of-emergency clause and the DPFP is proposing the establishment of “basic rights to data” that protect an individual’s dignity in an increasingly digitized society.

Even if the ruling parties and political forces that support constitutional amendment secure 310 seats, as things stand, it is difficult to tell whether discussions on changing the top law will proceed smoothly.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
An illustration : 465 lower house seats