TOKYO – Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s coalition kept a comfortable majority in Sunday's parliamentary election despite losing some seats as his weeks-old government grapples with a coronavirus-battered economy and regional security challenges.
Kishida’s Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner Komeito together won 293 seats, according to final but not yet official results. That's well above the majority of 233 in the 465-member lower house, the more powerful of Japan’s two-chamber Diet, where they previously had 305 seats.
The LDP lost 15 seats from its pre-election share, but the 261 seats it won are “an absolute majority” — a level that allows the party and its ruling bloc to control all parliamentary committees and easily ram through legislation.
The LDP's losses in single constituencies included those held by influential party members, such as secretary general Akira Amari, who was stung by a past bribery scandal. Amari offered to resign even though he eventually secured his seat in proportional representation.
“The lower house election is about choosing a leadership," Kishida said late Sunday after his ruling coalition secured the majority. "I believe we received a mandate from the voters.”
Kishida said the results were in part due to opposition parties' strategy of fielding unified candidates in many single-seat electoral districts, but also because of voters' judgment of his predecessors over the past four years.
Kishida, 64, dissolved the lower house only 10 days after taking office on Oct. 4. He had won the leadership race in his ruling party because the party's conservative leaders saw him as a safe status-quo successor to Yoshihide Suga and his influential predecessor Shinzo Abe.
Five opposition parties together lost 10 seats as their strategy of unifying candidates in most single-seat constituencies backfired, apparently because the Japanese Community Party was included in their united front. The largest opposition, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan lost 13 seats to 96, and the communists lost two seats, retreating to 12.
A big winner was the rightwing Ishin, or the Japan Innovation Party, which nearly quadrupled its seats to 41, rising to the third biggest party. Despite the party's previous stance close to the LDP, its growing criticism of both the ruling and opposition blocs catered to voters who wanted a change from the LDP but found the opposition bloc uncomfortable, experts say.
Kishida’s immediate task has been to rally support for a party weakened by Suga’s perceived high-handed approach to pandemic measures and his insistence on holding the Tokyo Olympics despite widespread opposition because of a high number of coronavirus cases, which have since dropped sharply.
Kishida repeatedly stressed his determination to listen to the people and to address criticism that the nine years led by Suga and Shinzo Abe had fanned corruption, tamed bureaucrats and muzzled opposing opinions.
The campaign has largely centered on COVID-19 response measures and revitalizing the economy.
While the ruling party stressed the importance of having a stronger military amid worries over China’s growing influence and North Korea’s missile and nuclear threat, opposition parties focused on diversity issues and pushed for gender equality.
Opposition leaders complain that recent LDP governments have widened the gap between rich and poor, did not support the economy during the pandemic and stalled gender equality and diversity initiatives. Japan this year ranked 120th in the World Economic Forum's 156-nation gender-gap ranking.
The opposition has long struggled to win enough votes to form a government after a brief rule of the now-defunct center-left Democratic Party of Japan in 2009-2012, as they have not been able to present a grand vision for the country.
On the economy, Kishida has emphasized growth by raising income, while opposition groups focus more on redistribution of wealth and call for cash payouts to pandemic-hit low-income households.
Kishida, during the campaign, promised to spur growth and “distribute its fruit” to the people as income.
Kishida said late Sunday he planned to reappoint the same members to his post-election Cabinet to speed up the work on a supplementary budget by the end of this year so that he can fund an economic package to provide support for the people and businesses hit by the pandemic.
“I will take concrete steps to achieve our policies as soon as possible,” Kishida said. “I need to move quickly.”
Before working on those, Kishida said he was heading to Glasgow to attend the COP26 summit on Tuesday. “It's a global issue for all mankind, and Japan has to take our responsibility,” he said.
The LDP opposes legislation guaranteeing equality for sexual minorities and allowing separate surnames for married couples.
Of the 1,051 candidates, only 17% were women, despite a 2018 law promoting gender equality in elections, which is toothless because there is no penalty. Women account for about 10% of parliament, a situation gender rights experts call “democracy without women.”
Some voters had little hope of change by the Kishida's government.
Shinji Asada, 44, said he compared COVID-19 measures to pick a candidate, hoping for a change of leadership, as he thought the ruling party lacked explanation and transparency over its pandemic measures. He said that despite Kishida’s promise to be more mindful of the people’s voices, “I thought nothing would change (under him) after seeing his Cabinet,” whose posts largely went to party factions that voted for him.
Associated Press journalist Chisato Tanaka contributed to this report.