Japan votes for strong government under Kishida and this will shape strategic equation in Indo-Pacific

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Japan's ruling coalition led by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has managed to retain a comfortable majority in the powerful lower House of Representatives of the National Diet following the 31 October general elections.

With this win, Japan's PM Fumio Kishida, known to have prepared to become Japan's prime minister longer than any other to hold the office, has secured more than 233 seats in the 465-member house — a parliamentary majority benchmark required to govern effectively even without its primary coalition partner, the Komeito. The LDP, however, did suffer few prominent losses including the defeat of its secretary-general and No. 2, Akira Amari, who stared defeat in his district in the Kanagawa Prefecture. With the LDP winning 261 seats along with the Komeito scoring 32, the ruling coalition now stands at a total of 293 seats. The results are not just a referendum vote on the LDP's recent decision of choosing Kishida as its leader, but also enhance Kishida's own influence within the party, thus proving instrumental in determining the next course of his policy priorities and implementation of reforms.

The LDP went into elections at a time when its government had come under heavy criticism for the unsystematic and slipshod handling of the pandemic. The inadequate crisis management and communication during the fifth COVID-19 wave across Japan became former PM Suga's undoing to a large extent, thereby marking his administration's abject failure. Amid a rapidly declining support base within the ruling LDP and among the Japanese public, it had fast become a reality that, without a change in leadership, the LDP's prospects in the upcoming general elections would be meager.

In this backdrop, these election results have come in as an unheralded surprise for many, given that numerous exit polls predicted that LDP would struggle to win, and would be in need to heavily rely on the Komeito to reach the majority mark. On the contrary, with these numbers, the LDP under Kishida now remains firmly in control of all standing committees to steer the legislative processes. While Kishida acknowledged that he was 'encouraged' by the ruling coalition's performance and will "build on this result in running the government and the Diet", he credited the victory of the ruling bloc as the "will of the Japanese people".

This election has not just been crucial for newly sworn-in PM Kishida and his leadership, but is also being viewed as a public vote on nine years of governance of the LDP under Kishida's predecessors, Yoshihide Suga, and the far more prominent Shinzo Abe — the longest-serving Japanese PM with an uninterrupted run of nearly eight years in the PM's chair beginning 2012. With an estimated 55.93 percent voter turnout, Japan's voters have apparently chosen to maintain political stability under the LDP-led government.

The LDP, notably, has nurtured its core competency to preserve power as the ruling party, dominating post-war politics for most of the past seven decades in Japan. With this latest election verdict, the apprehensions accompanying Suga's departure and Kishida's rise have been trampled. The LDP has managed to avert the rising perception prior to the elections whether Japan would return to a pattern of 'revolving-door prime ministers' with one-year tenures that were characteristic of Japan's politics before 2012. Having secured a strong verdict, Kishida finds himself in firm control to implement his economic and national security agenda despite having a difficult national list of items at hand, such as spurring economic growth under his signature 'new capitalism' vision, to managing a possible sixth COVID-19 wave across Japan.

The power of Japan's Prime Minister over the country’s foreign policy formulation got significantly reinforced under the Abe administration when it established a National Security Council in 2013 to centralise the power of security policymaking in the hands of the top political leadership. Incidentally, current PM Kishida holds the claim to the record of being Japan's longest-serving post-war foreign minister in Abe's government from 2012–17.

Therefore, while the domestic debates on competing policy approaches to national security and national identity will continue among domestic constituencies of Japan, along with clashing political visions and factionalism within the LDP, the larger strategic realities that confront Japan's national security interests today should not be compromised on account of the various political ideologies and camps existing within the LDP.

Kishida, a non-controversial moderate, leading the LDP, stands at a delicate crossroads with a very thin line dividing domestic politics from the overall strategic thinking, including debates on defense policy and balance of regional military power. The LDP leadership, sooner or later, will have to push for efforts to fortify the legislative foundations for Japan's security to enable it to provide seamless responses to all levels of crises.

Fumio Kishida should not appear to engage with China at the cost of seeming to bow to it on critical strategic and economic issues affecting Japan. By securing a big boost in military spending and taking a harder line on China, Kishida and the LDP aim to double Japan's defence spending to around 2 percent of the gross domestic product to deal with China and North Korea, thereby signalling the course of the direction that they intend to tread upon.

As 21st century Asian politics and security challenges become far more complex and precarious, Japan can ill afford to demonstrate, even symbolically, the political vulnerability of a weak or meek prime ministership. In this light, Kishida will now face a tough balancing act of coming to terms with growing domestic concerns about China’s predatory security posture and policies, the centrality of its security alliance with Washington, and developing key equations with allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific — all along keeping Japan's economic graph on the upswing by redistributing wealth under his 'new capitalism' plan.

The writer is a Senior Fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs (JIIA) in Tokyo. Views expressed are personal.

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Japan votes for strong government under Kishida and this will shape strategic equation in Indo-Pacific
Japan votes for strong government under Kishida and this will shape strategic equation in Indo-Pacific
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