(Bloomberg) -- Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida may head into an early election despite a public rift in his 24-year-old coalition, given that putting off the vote would be an even more unpalatable prospect.
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A stock market at three-decade highs, an economy expanding faster than expected and a rise in poll numbers could lead to Kishida to call a general election in July or the autumn. This is before he needs to decide in late 2023 how to fund increased spending on defense and boosting the birthrate — which may mean unpopular tax hikes.
But a battle over rights to field candidates in Tokyo constituencies prompted Kishida’s junior coalition partner Komeito, which has a powerful political machine to turn out voters, to cut off cooperation with the premier’s Liberal Democratic Party in the capital.
While Kishida need not go to the polls until 2025, renewing his mandate would help him keep a grip on his party and win reelection as LDP leader in September 2024, giving him more time to pursue his goals of better pay and a more dynamic economy.
“The LDP absolutely hates to go into an election on a platform of increasing the burden on the public,” said Katsuyuki Yakushiji, a politics professor at Toyo University. “So that means they have to hold it by the autumn.”
The prime minister’s support rate jumped to its highest in nearly a year after he hosted the Group of Seven summit in his hometown of Hiroshima in late May, stirring speculation he could go to the people. His approval remained largely unchanged at 46.7% in a poll carried out by news network JNN on June 3-4, supporting views that an election is coming.
Kishida’s LDP looks to be clearing the decks by pushing bills through parliament ahead of the June 21 end of the session and picking candidates for remaining constituencies.
The LDP and Komeito are all but certain to keep their majority in parliament given the relatively low support rates for the opposition. But the friction could led to a few embarrassing losses and embolden parties trying to push out the LDP, which has ruled almost continuously since its founding in 1955.
“They still provide 6 million votes,” said Tomoaki Iwai, an emeritus professor of political science at Nihon University in Tokyo, said of Komeito. He added this can mean 10,000-20,000 in a constituency, and bring to bear “enormous influence” on results.
Komeito, locked in an unlikely coalition since 1999 with the right-leaning LDP, gets a seat in the cabinet and uses its position to aid lower-income groups and try to fend off any drastic changes to the country’s pacifist policies.
The dispute came after Japan’s biggest shake-up of constituency boundaries, reflecting the population drift from the ruling LDP’s rural strongholds to urban areas.
“It’s much more serious than any other time the LDP and Komeito have had trouble cooperating,” said Steven Reed, an emeritus professor at Chuo University and author of books on Komeito and Japan’s elections.
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The party that could benefit the most is the right-leaning Nippon Ishin no Kai, which is strong in Osaka and looking to grab seats in the capital. Ishin aims to replace the left-leaning Constitutional Democratic Party as the largest opposition group.
A poll conducted by the Mainichi newspaper May 20-21 found 47% of respondents said Ishin should be the biggest opposition party. About 17% said they supported the group, compared with 9% for the CDP.
If Ishin becomes a convincing opposition force, something Japan has lacked for a decade, it will seek to push LDP policies in a different direction. Ishin prioritizes cost-cutting and avoiding tax hikes. It also favors changing the pacifist Article 9 of the Constitution.
But some analysts say animosity in the ruling coalition is unlikely to overturn ingrained voting patterns among Komeito supporters.
“I don’t think these voters will say: We are not allowed to vote for the LDP,” said Axel Klein, a social sciences professor at the Institute of East Asia Studies at the University of Duisburg-Essen. “Who else would they vote for? I think the consequences of this division won’t be as severe for the LDP as it might look at the moment.”
Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi has said the alliance is strong, even as a poll showed a majority of LDP supporters think it should be dissolved.
“Komeito’s presence in the coalition government is extremely important,” Yamaguchi told reporters after meeting Kishida at his official residence May 30. “I don’t at present see any other combination or form of government that could take its place.”
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