Political Focus in Japan Shifts to Possible Lower House Dissolution

The Yomiuri Shimbun
From right, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, LDP Secretary General Toshimitsu Motegi and LDP Vice President Taro Aso before the party executive members’ meeting at the party headquarters in Tokyo on Monday afternoon

With the ruling Liberal Democratic Party having struggled to win four out of five by-elections for Diet seats on Sunday, in contests seen as a “midterm referendum” on the Cabinet of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, the next focal point is when Kishida will decide on a dissolution of the House of Representatives and a subsequent general election.

If the Cabinet’s recently improved approval ratings continue to rise, there will be growing calls for a lower house dissolution and general election within the LDP.

Kishida told reporters at the Prime Minister’s Office on Monday, “[The by-election results] mean that voters encouraged us to steadily get through important policy issues.”

In a meeting with LDP Secretary General Toshimitsu Motegi and Hiroshi Moriyama, chairperson of the LDP’s Election Strategy Committee, on the day, Kishida told them, “Let’s face the latter half of the Diet session cautiously.”

Kishida himself has not expressed a feeling of uplift at the results of the by-elections because the victories included a win by a margin of only 341 votes in the Oita prefectural constituency by-election for the House of Councillors. Also, in Chiba Constituency No. 5, the LDP candidate won mainly due to the fact that opposition parties could not field a unified candidate.

Some within the LDP said there had been a possibility that the party have won only one out of the five by-elections.

Moriyama expressed his sense of urgency, telling reporters on Monday that the by-election results “have left good lessons for us toward the next lower house election. We need to work hard for the election because opposition parties are hot on our tail.”

Kishida indicated a negative view toward lower house dissolution. Moriyama said: “It means that currently there is nothing about which we need to seek a mandate from the public through a national election. If there were, I think he would decide [to dissolve the lower house] without hesitation.”

As Moriyama said, Kishida needs not only to make efforts to further raise his Cabinet’s approval ratings, but also to present a concrete “cause” for the lower house election.

The government and ruling parties have to decide on matters related to increasing burdens on the public, including how to secure financial resources for “measures of an unprecedented scale against the low birth rate” and when to start tax increases aimed at enhancing defense budgets.

A senior LDP lawmaker with experience as a cabinet member said, “It is reasonable to face the judgment of the people openly and squarely on necessary policies and win the election while the Cabinet approval ratings are high.”

Some LDP lawmakers say the party should cooperate closely with Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party) and strongly promote constitutional revision. One of them stated that highlighting revision of the Constitution in LDP-Ishin cooperation would make it impossible for Ishin and the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan to work together for the next election.

Whether opposition parties will submit a no-confidence motion against the Cabinet will likely attract attention as it could be a reason for the dissolution.

There is also a possibility that moves by Ishin, which has been gathering momentum, will influence judgment on the dissolution.

An LDP lawmaker elected from the Kinki region said: “If the lower house is dissolved now, all LDP candidates [in the region] will be defeated. I would want to oppose any movement for the dissolution.”

Coalition partner Komeito also has been sensitive about Ishin and is cautious about an early dissolution.

Nine of Komeito’s incumbent lawmakers represent single-seat constituencies. Six of those are in the Kinki region’s Osaka and Hyogo Prefectures. Ishin, which is strong in that part of the country but had not fielded its candidates in those constituencies, recently said it will totally reset its cooperative relations with Komeito there.

At a press conference on Monday, Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi stressed, “We’ll continue our basic stance to maintain the current seats in the six single-seat constituencies.”

On the other hand, Ishin Secretary General Fumitake Fujita put pressure on the ruling parties at a press conference Monday, saying, “If an early dissolution is to be decided on, we will consider it as a move to ‘crash Ishin’ and we will field our candidates without hesitation.”

Dissolution eyed this year

There is an influential view within the LDP that the lower house will be dissolved by the end of this year at the latest.

The earliest timing would be during a period after the summit of the Group of Seven advanced nations in Hiroshima in May to the end of the current Diet session on June 21.

During the summit, Kishida will have more opportunities to appear in the media. If he can display his leadership as the G7 chair, the approval ratings of his Cabinet are expected to increase further. There is a calculation that it would be better to make a decision on the dissolution before opposition parties finish preparing for the election.

Even if Kishida decided on the dissolution during the current Diet session and the LDP wins the lower house election, there could be a flashing yellow light for his reelection as LDP president after his tenure as party president expires at the end of September next year, if his Cabinet’s approval ratings drop again due to unexpected contingencies, such as further price hikes or an economic slowdown caused by the Ukraine situation.

Under such circumstances, it is possible that Kishida could reshuffle his Cabinet and the LDP executive posts in the summer in an attempt to raise his Cabinet’s approval ratings, and then dissolve the lower house when an extraordinary Diet session is convened in September or later.

An aide to Kishida said that if the lower house is dissolved at an earlier date, it could give the public the impression that the LDP was only building on the momentum created by its by-election victories.

A senior LDP member stated that there will be no dissolution at the moment, but also said that there would be no good chance for one if the September window is missed.