Cracks appear in Japan's ruling coalition

Japan's political landscape could be set for a shakeup. Junior coalition partner Komeito is withdrawing cooperation with the main ruling Liberal Democratic Party for elections in Tokyo. So far, the move does not affect their framework in national politics, but it could signal division.

Talks break down

Komeito Secretary General Ishii Keiichi met LDP counterpart Motegi Toshimitsu on May 25. Ishii explained that Komeito would not support LDP candidates in Tokyo's single-seat constituencies in the upcoming Lower House election.

In addition, Komeito had decided it would not cooperate with the Liberal Democrats in other elections in Tokyo, including polls in 2025 for the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly.

"The relationship of trust between the LDP and Komeito in Tokyo has hit the ground during talks on the issue," Ishii said after the meeting.

Once 'a beautiful harmony'

The LDP and Komeito established a coalition government in 1999. Since then, the two parties have cooperated in every election, even when they were out of power between 2009 and 2012.

Komeito has held a ministry position, and the parties' relationship has been stable for more than two decades. In 2019, then-prime minister Abe Shinzo characterized the 20th anniversary of the coalition as a mark of trust.

"The coalition government provided political stability. Even though we lost power, we cooperated through difficult times to regain power. It is truly a beautiful harmony, taking advantage of our strengths."

Abe Shinzo, then Japan's prime minister and president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (left), with Yamaguchi Natsuo, Komeito's Chief Representative, in March, 2018.

Seat redistribution

Seats in Japan's Diet are allocated according to voting for individual candidates in single seats, as well as proportional representation. Historically, Komeito has consistently endorsed LDP candidates running in single-seat districts around Japan. In return, the LDP has asked its supporters to vote for Komeito in the proportional representation constituency.

A redistribution to correct disparity in vote value will take effect at the next Lower House election. A total of 10 single-seat districts will be added to densely populated areas. At the same time, 10 are being removed from sparsely populated regions.

Komeito wanted to file its own candidates in some of the 10 new districts because it has been struggling to win votes under the proportional representation system in national elections.

In last year's Upper House election, Komeito received just 6.18 million of those votes — well short of its target. The disappointing result saw the party lose one seat.

An emerging rival

Currently, six of the nine Komeito members who hold single seats in the Lower House are from Osaka and Hyogo. Until now, the Japan Innovation Party has not fielded candidates in those six constituencies. But that might change at the next election, as the party considers running candidates against Komeito's incumbents.

Komeito officials fear it will not be easy to defeat the Japan Innovation Party in the Kansai region.

Relationships weaken

It is understood that under the administration of current Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, communication channels between the LDP and Komeito are not as open as they once were. Senior officials used to negotiate behind the scenes to seek a compromise when the two parties were unable to reach a consensus.

Prime Minister Kishida Fumio (left) and Komeito Chief Representative Yamaguchi Natsuo.

Former Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide was instrumental. In both his administration and when serving under Abe, he ran a "hotline" with a campaign strategy counterpart. But since Suga stepped away from the senior ranks of the LDP, no one else appears to have nurtured a similar relationship.

Policy differences

Komeito's political ideology differs from that of the main ruling party. Although it eventually accepted the LDP's reinterpretation of the Constitution to allow the use of the right to collective self-defense in 2015, gaps remain.

Narrow margins

LDP lawmakers are calculating what could happen in the Tokyo district if Komeito's cooperation falls away ahead of the Lower House election.

Votes from Komeito supporters are estimated to be 20,000 for each of the single seats. At the last House of Representatives election, six LDP members in Tokyo won with margins of less than 20,000 votes. Without Komeito's support, victory is clearly anything but guaranteed.

So far, Komeito is pulling away from the LDP in Tokyo only. But talks between the two parties are ongoing, with some lawmakers worried about the direction they could take.

Nagashima Akihisa, an LDP member of the House of Representatives, is one of them. He cautions: "It would be unwise to think that what happens in Tokyo won't happen in other parts of the country."