Striking the iron while it is hot - this was what the Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida was saying while calling the general election less than a month after assuming the post. Kishida was a last-minute choice of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) for the leadership post to replace Yoshihide Suga as party head. Suga's rapidly falling support rate alarmed LDP stalwarts of a possible disaster in the upcoming election for the lower house of the Japanese Diet. The election was due after the expiry of four-year term of the chamber and the main governing party did not want to make an appeal to voters with a leader on whom public was fast losing trust. Hence, the party leadership wanted someone not only with a better image, but also with a relatively weaker standing within the party, a position that would allow the leadership to pull the string from behind. Kishida thus emerged as the right choice and the new leader, a party veteran who is well aware of the fact that a newly elected party leader always enjoys a period of grace right after assuming the office, was quick to dissolve the lower house to pave the way for a general election. He wanted to make sure that by calling the general election without delay he intended to strike the iron immediately after bringing it out from the burner. His strategy had mostly been rewarded as LDP, despite pre-election media projection of losing significant number of seats at the lower house, did surprisingly well by retaining an absolute majority. However, there had been some casualties that Kishida obviously was not expecting.
The ruling block consisting of LDP and Komei party, the junior partner in the government, despite losing more than ten seats, could retain a comfortable majority and thus making the task of fulfilling election pledges for Kishida easier. However, that easy task might not turn out to be that easy in reality because of Kishida's weak standing within the inner factional politics of LDP. Moreover, his trusted partner and ally Akira Amari, who Kishida appointed party secretary general immediately after winning the presidential race, failed to secure his long-held seat at the lower chamber. Though Amari could make it to the Diet thanks to his inclusion in party's proportional representation slot, losing the direct race had a severe blow on his reputation, more because as the secretary general of the party he was also responsible for LDP's election strategy. Amari had already announced his intention to resign from the post of party secretary general and Kishida accepted his resignation. However, this was a relatively minor set-back for the ruling party compared to what the main opposition, the Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP) had to go through.
Most of the pre-election projections had shown small gains for the CDP, though predicting rightfully that the party would fall short of posing any significant challenge to LDP domination at the Diet. However, the party not only failed to hold on to its pre-election strength, a net loss of 11 seats had been seen as a major setback for a political party that had been on a slow ascend during last few years. In addition, a number of top-level CDP leaders failed to secure their seats and even party leader Yukio Edano had to struggle to make it through in his own constituency. Among high-profile casualties of CDP are a number of veteran leaders. This unexpected debacle resulted in voicing doubts over Edano's leadership capability and there were growing calls for his resignation. Though declining to give up the leadership role initially, Edano had eventually bowed down to the pressure and announced that the whole leadership of the party was to resign and thus paving the way for the younger generation to take the helm. CDP's joining hand with three others smaller parties along with the Japanese Communist Party to form a joint platform to fight against the ruling block in the election had not been taken well by the voters. By forming an electoral coalition, the four parties were hoping to increase their share of votes by avoiding the split in vote count. However, a coalition without basic policy sharing platform turned out to be an effort with the sole aim to dislodging the ruling block and the strategy failed not only to win broader public support, but also placed CDP's role as a responsible opposition into question.
The net gainer of the just concluded general election turned out to be a regional party based in western Japan. Japan Innovation Party, which had 11 seats in the lower house before the election could increase the number almost four-fold. The party with 41 lower house seats has now become the third largest group in the Diet. The success, though came as a surprise, also gives a clear indication that voters in Japan are probably going through a radical shift that most of the existing political parties failed to grasp. The Osaka based party, known in the country by its Japanese name of Nippon Ishin, kept a distance from both ruling and opposition camps and had set its own agenda for election campaign. Moreover, its young leadership also had appeal to the younger generation of voters who are looking for something different in national politics. And finally, its regional appeal had a far-reaching impact in western Japan where a number of seats held by other parties went to Nippon Ishin.
Now that the election is over and both ruling and opposition camps are busy finding out what went wrong, the focus is gradually shifting on the election pledges Kishida made and how he is going to deliver. One of his major pre-election commitments was to ensure a more acceptable distribution of wealth for addressing the growing disparity within the society. He had been saying about a new form of capitalism to replace the existing one blamed for creating a society of few super riches whereas majority are finding it difficult to sustain, more because of the impact of corona virus. The ruling coalition has already started drawing up a stimulus package featuring financial help for businesses and people hit hard by the pandemic.
However, Kishida has stopped uttering anything about taxing the rich, an idea he was hinting about implementing at the early stage of his campaign for LDP leadership race. As a result, there is a growing uneasy feeling that he might resort once again to the much-used formula of collecting fund by issuing government bond, a practice that already had turned Japan into the most indebted country in the world in terms of GDP-debt ratio. Not a good prospect for a new capitalism that Kishida is still talking about.
(Tokyo, November 3, 2021)
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