Polls opened in Japan’s general election on Sunday with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida hoping to win over a pandemic-fatigued public with spending promises as his long-ruling conservatives seek a fresh start.
Kishida became leader of the Liberal Democratic Party (LPD) a month ago after Yoshihide Suga resigned just a year into the job, partly due to public discontent over his response to the COVID-19 crisis.
Following a record wave of infections that pushed the Tokyo Olympics behind closed doors, cases have now plummeted and most restrictions have been lifted.
While this may ease some voters’ frustrations, the LDP — which has held power almost continuously since the 1950s — is likely to lose seats and may have trouble retaining its commanding majority, analysts say.
Kishida, 64, has pledged to issue a fresh stimulus package worth tens of trillions of yen to counter the impact of the pandemic on the world’s third-largest economy.
He has also outlined plans to distribute wealth more fairly under a so-called “new capitalism,” although details so far remain vague.
But Japan’s 106 million voters have “struggled to get excited about the new prime minister,” said Stefan Angrick, a senior economist at Moody’s Analytics.
“Kishida faces headwinds from weak ratings and a more coordinated opposition, but an improving COVID-19 situation and economic outlook are factors in his favor.”
Across Japan, 1,051 candidates are standing for election to parliament’s lower house.
In recent decades, votes against the LDP have been split between multiple major opposition parties, but this time five rival parties have boosted cooperation in a bid to dent its stranglehold.
Nonetheless, the LDP enjoys “great advantages” in Japan’s political arena, Michael Cucek, assistant professor of Asian studies at Temple University, told AFP.
“The electoral system is tilted in their favor,” he said, as the party boasts a strong network of supporters nationwide.
The LDP wants to put a tumultuous year behind it, but “the fact that they are still having to fight so hard is, for them, highly embarrassing”, Cucek said.
Kishida has not had a political honeymoon, with approval ratings around 50%, the lowest in two decades for a new administration in Japan.
He has set a comfortable target of winning 233 of the 465 lower-house seats — a simple majority including lawmakers from the LDP’s junior coalition partner Komeito.
However, such a result would be seen as a setback for the LDP, which previously held 276 seats on its own.
Even if the party wins, a poor showing could lead to losses in next summer’s upper house vote, risking a return to Japan’s history of revolving-door premierships, analysts warn.
If Kishida “leads the party into a loss of seats, a clock starts ticking in the minds of his rivals,” Cucek said.
Since World War II, only five politicians have hung on to the prime minister’s office for five years or longer, with some lasting just two months.
Suga’s predecessor Shinzo Abe was the longest-serving prime minister in Japan’s history, in power from 2012 to 2020 after his first one-year term.
Angrick of Moody’s Analytics said Kishida needs to show he can do more than just provide stability.
“Kishida will need to convince the public and younger members of his party that continuity does not mean status quo, but rather maintaining what has worked and improving on what has not,” he said.
As well as vowing to tackle the pandemic and working to boost the middle class, the LDP has said it will aim to increase defense spending to counter threats from China and North Korea.
Meanwhile, some opposition parties have emphasized their support of social issues that Kishida has so far distanced himself from, such as same-sex marriage and allowing married couples to have different surnames.