TOKYO: Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's ruling LDP defied expectations and held on to a majority in Sunday's (Oct 31) parliamentary election, exit polls showed, solidifying his position in a fractious party and allowing him to ramp up stimulus.
While Kishida's conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was projected to emerge with fewer seats in the powerful lower house than it won in the last election in 2017, the party retained its majority, exit polls by public broadcaster NHK showed early on Monday.
The result was at odds with expectations and initial exit polls that suggested the LDP could lose sole majority. Kishida, a soft-spoken former banker who has struggled to shake off an image that he lacks charisma, is also likely to be emboldened by the win.
The vote was a test for Kishida, who called the election soon after taking the top post early this month, and for the long-powerful party, which has been hurt by perceptions it mishandled the coronavirus pandemic.
"The overall trend is in favour of stability. The LDP cleared the hurdles it absolutely had to," said Tobias Harris, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
"We'll see a lot of stimulus," he said.
A poorer showing would have heightened expectations that he could follow predecessor Yoshihide Suga in becoming another short-term premier.
The party did take some notable hits, including the loss by its secretary general, Akira Amari, in his single-seat district. Amari, a key backer of Kishida, intended to resign from his party post, NHK said.
Kishida has hewed to traditional policies of the party's right wing, pushing to increase military spending, but has also promised to address wealth inequality, touting a "new capitalism" that has stoked concern among investors.
The LDP was expected to have won at least 253 seats in the lower house as of early on Monday, NHK said, comfortably exceeding the 233 needed for a majority. It held 276 before the election.
The LDP and its junior coalition partner, Komeito, secured more than 261 required for an "absolute stable majority" that gives the coalition command of parliamentary committees, making it easier to pass bills.
Kishida said the administration would attempt to compile an extra budget this year, in what would be a tight schedule.
"I hope to pass through parliament an extra budget this year," he told reporters.
This would involve funding steps to support people hit by the pandemic such as those who lost jobs and students struggling to pay tuitions.
A big winner was the conservative Osaka-based Japan Innovation Party, projected to more than treble its seats and surpass Komeito as the third force in the lower house, after the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan.
The emergence of the Osaka party as a national force may complicate Kishida's pledge to roll back neoliberal economic policies.
The Innovation Party is "really sweeping the Osaka region. They've emerged as an important conservative bloc," said Yoichiro Sato, a professor of international relations at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University. "They are going to block Kishida's new capitalism idea of narrowing the rich-poor income gap."
Kishida's publicly stated goal had been for the coalition to keep a majority, at least 233 seats, of the 465 in the lower house - although that was widely seen as a lowball target, given that the Komeito had 29 seats before the election.
One of the most high-profile LDP defeats was a former economy minister and the leader of one the party's factions, Nobuteru Ishihara, who lost to an opposition candidate in a western Tokyo district.
The usually splintered opposition was united, with only one party - including the widely shunned Japanese Communist Party - facing off against the coalition in most districts.
Some voters - like Yoshihiko Suzuki, who voted for the main opposition candidate in his district and the Communists in proportional representation - hoped the poll might teach the LDP a lesson.
Suzuki, 68 and retired, said the LDP's years in power made it complacent and arrogant, underscored by a series of money and cronyism scandals.
"I hope this election comes as a wakeup call for them," he said. "If it does, the LDP will become a better party, considering the number of talented lawmakers they've got."