The LDP and Ishin no Kai – Together at Last?

While the LDP and Ishin may seem to make an ideal pair given their alignment on certain high-profile issues, there’s also a lot that’s keeping them apart – for now

The Japan Innovation Party (Nippon Ishin no Kai) has emerged as a rising force in Japanese politics ever since the Lower House election in October 2021, when it captured four times more seats than it held prior to the election. Its presence has been growing on all fronts, from discussions on revising national security strategy documents to the recent immigration bill, serving as an anti-establishment and reformist force. 

This rapid growth has prompted some to predict that it will overtake the Constitutional Democratic Party as the main opposition in the Diet, while others argue Ishin could better serve as a junior coalition partner to the LDP than Komeito given its policy alignment on issues, especially foreign policy and security. Yet it remains too soon to tell if Ishin is capable of fulfilling either role — it is still a largely regional party with a weak national base. Until it can demonstrate stability as an electoral force and grow its support base beyond its home Kansai region, any talk of it as a coalition partner or leading opposition party is speculative at best.

The Case for Joining the Ruling Coalition

There are several reasons why an LDP-Ishin coalition may materialize. First, the LDP and Ishin align on key policy areas. A quick survey of the policy manifestos for the 2021 Lower House election show that the two parties align on aggressive monetary and fiscal policy, financial support for childbirth and rearing, increasing defense spending, free trade, use of next-generation nuclear power, and revising the Constitution. On defense in particular, Ishin’s proposals align more closely with hawkish LDP lawmakers — policies that often tend to be watered down significantly by the LDP’s current coalition partner, Komeito. For example, Ishin’s December 2022 recommendations for Japan’s national security strategy documents included the acquisition of counterstrike capabilities, nuclear sharing, and spending more than two percent of GDP on defense. Komeito, in contrast, voiced caution about counterstrike capabilities and raising defense spending above the informal one percent threshold. 

Second, being part of the ruling coalition means tangible accomplishments and shaping government policy decisions. Komeito has been able to “punch above its weight” on policy matters given its position as junior coalition partner, and Ishin could theoretically do even more as junior partner given its closer policy alignment with the LDP. 

Third, there are questions about the longevity of the LDP-Komeito coalition given the latter’s weakening support base. Traditionally, Komeito was able to garner around 20-25 thousand votes per single-member district and easily swing an election in favor of an LDP candidate. According to one estimate, Komeito helped elect almost a quarter of the LDP’s single-member district candidates in 2014.  

This win-win arrangement—in which the LDP gains votes and Komeito gains political influence—may be crumbling, with Komeito’s vote tally in the proportional representation block during the 2022 Upper House election falling to around 6.18 million, the lowest since 2001. It may have even peaked in 2005 when it garnered 8.98 million votes — since then, its aging support base, grounded in the Soka Gakkai Buddhist sect, has resulted in an almost 30 percent decline in votes. Furthermore, Komeito experienced a record-high 12 defeats in the April 2023 unified local elections, despite traditionally only fielding candidates where it is confident it can win.

Meanwhile, Ishin achieved its goal of capturing more than six hundred local assembly seats across the country, 1.5 times more than before the local unified elections. It also peeled independent voters away from the ruling coalition during the April by-elections, with exit polls suggesting that an overwhelming majority of independents voted for Ishin and other opposition candidates over ruling coalition candidates. On the national stage, the last Lower House election saw Ishin almost quadruple its seats to become the third largest party. While lower voter turnout has continued to help the ruling coalition retain their majority status, Ishin’s rise vis-a-vis the two parties cannot be overlooked. 

The Case Against Ishin Joining the Ruling Coalition

There are also reasons why Ishin would avoid joining the ruling coalition. First, the junior coalition partner loses autonomy on making policy decisions. Komeito, for example, has often alienated its supporter base in order to acquiesce to LDP demands. For instance, though it succeeded in watering down the reinterpretation of the Constitution to permit limited collective self-defense, Komeito supporters nevertheless criticized the party for not fulfilling its role as a “brake on the government.” Ishin will no doubt face similar challenges given its smaller size and lack of electoral incentives for the LDP to acquiesce to its demands.

Second, joining the ruling coalition would force it to compromise on key priorities. Ishin’s focus has been on revising existing regulations and structural reform, while the LDP has prioritized economic policies designed to augment the existing economic structure. The aforementioned 2021 policy manifesto made reform a central theme, including policies such as cutting Diet members’ salaries. Such fundamental policy differences would hinder cooperation. 

Third, Ishin would sacrifice its identity as an anti-establishment force capable of both competing and cooperating with the ruling coalition. Recent polls show that voters want a strong opposition but that “establishment” parties like the CDP are out of the question. In contrast, a Jiji poll conducted in May 2023 showed that 41 percent of respondents believe Ishin would be a better opposition party than the CDP (17 percent), while a Nikkei poll from the same month found that 51 percent of respondents prefer Ishin over the CDP (27 percent). This can be attributed to a number of factors, including the CDP’s association with the DPJ’s unsuccessful experience in government, its alignment with the JCP on elections and legislation, and the perception that Ishin is a more productive opposition capable of dialogue with the ruling coalition. 

What Does Ishin Want Anyway?

Ishin’s rise has raised inevitable questions about what it plans to do with its newly found influence. On one hand, leader Baba Nobuyuki has flirted with the idea of joining the ruling coalition, stating in September 2022 that the “possibility is not zero.” Baba has also stated on another occasion that the party may be willing to join a coalition with the reform-minded wing of the LDP should the party splinter into conservative and reformist forces. But at the same time, the party clearly understands that its identity revolves around its anti-establishment nature: in April, Secretary-General Fujita Fumitake quashed rumors that it would join the ruling coalition by declaring that this would “be the end” of the party.

For now, all signs point to Ishin maintaining its role in the opposition. In its 2022 party guidelines, Ishin decided that it will aim to become the main opposition with an eye toward taking the reins of government. At the party convention in May, re-elected leader Baba announced that the party’s ambition is to overtake the CDP as main opposition in the next general election. This prompted the CDP to cease election cooperation with Ishin, setting the two parties on course for a heated battle in the upcoming general election. The party also announced this month that it will cease election cooperation with Komeito in Kansai — an arrangement in which it avoided competition in Osaka and Hyogo districts held by Komeito in exchange for Komeito support for its Osaka Metropolis Plan — setting up a head-to-head battle with the ruling coalition. 

For now, Ishin’s prospects remain a work-in-progress. Results from the most recent local unified elections and national by-elections show that it is still consolidating its local Kansai base. Becoming a viable opposition or coalition partner would require branching out and establishing a nationwide presence, or the tall order of replacing the appeal of Komeito by replicating its vote machine.

In the short term, Ishin will likely channel its energy toward overtaking the CDP in the next generation election. While its origins as a local Kansai party with little focus on national issues has hindered its expansion, Ishin’s recent track record of working with and extracting compromises from the ruling coalition juxtaposes it against the “old-fashioned” CDP. Ishin may also benefit from discord between the LDP and Komeito, as exemplified by Komeito’s decision this month to withdraw support for LDP candidates in Tokyo in the next election due to the spat over candidates in redistricted SMDs. 

While it might be too soon for Ishin to decide whether to join the ruling coalition, what it does after the next election will go a long way to determine the future political landscape and whether Japan is set for an overhaul in ruling-opposition party dynamics. 

Graduate Student at Georgetown University's Walsh School of Foreign Service | Website | + posts

Rintaro Nishimura is an analyst with the Japan practice at The Asia Group and a first-year graduate student in the Asian Studies Program at Georgetown University's Walsh School of Foreign Service. He writes on international relations in Northeast Asia, mostly focusing on Japanese foreign and security policy. A native of Tokyo, Japan, his articles have appeared in the Georgetown Journal of Asian Affairs, The National Interest, The Diplomat, and Northeastern University Political Review. His current research interests are focused on Japan’s Indo-Pacific strategy and the geoeconomics of the region. He can be found on Twitter (@RinNishimura) and http://rintaronishimura.com

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