Japan votes in test for new PM Kishida, political stability

Voters casting ballots in the Lower House election at a polling station in Tokyo on Oct 31, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese voters went to the polls on Sunday (Oct 31) to decide whether to endorse the conservative government of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida or weaken the new premier and possibly return the world's third-largest economy to a period of political uncertainty.

The vote is a test for Mr Kishida, who called the election soon after taking the top post early this month, and for his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has been battered by its perceived mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Already, Mr Kishida has struggled to advance policies to help poorer people, while securing a big boost in military spending and taking a harder line on China.

With his lacklustre image failing to inspire voters, the LDP is on the brink of losing its sole majority in the Lower House of Parliament for the first time since 2009, opinion polls show, although its coalition with junior partner Komeito is forecast to remain in control.

Several key LDP lawmakers are also facing particularly tough contests, including party's secretary-general Akira Amari.

"Revolving-door prime ministers is a weakness that many outside of Japan fear," Ms Sheila A. Smith, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in a blog post.

"Prime Minister Kishida will need a unified party and a strong electoral showing on Oct 31, if he is to successfully tackle Japan's difficult national agenda."

Turnout will be crucial, since higher turnout tends to favour the opposition, but many are choosing to vote absentee.

The biggest opposition group, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, is expected to gain seats but not come near toppling Mr Kishida's coalition.

Still, a big loss of LDP seats could lead to party infighting, returning Japan to an era of short-lived administrations that diminished its global stature, until Mr Shinzo Abe helmed the country for a record eight years to September last year.

The dovish Komeito could also gain more clout within the coalition.

Uncertainty is high, with the Nikkei newspaper estimating 40 per cent of single-seat districts have close races and recent polls showing some 40 per cent of voters undecided.

Voting ends at 8pm (7pm, Singapore time) with projected results likely to come soon afterwards from media exit polls.

Mr Kishida's publicly stated goal is for his coalition to keep a majority, at least 233 seats of the 465, in the Lower House. Before the election, the coalition had a commanding two-thirds majority of 305, with the LDP holding 276.

Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida (centre) delivering a speech during an election campaign in Tokyo on Oct 30, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Investors and political watchers are focused on whether the LDP - in power for all but brief spells since it was formed in 1955 - can keep its majority as a single party.

Losing that would erode Mr Kishida's power base in the factional LDP and the party's standing against the Komeito.

The usually splintered opposition is united, arranging for only one party - including the widely shunned Japanese Communist Party - to face off against the coalition in most districts, with analysts saying this is creating a number of neck-and-neck battles.

But the opposition has failed to capture the hearts of voters, with only 8 per cent supporting the Constitutional Democrats while 39 per cent back the LDP, according to a poll last week by public broadcaster NHK.

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