In 2023, Kishida’s political survival hangs in the balance

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“One inch ahead is darkness.”

The Japanese saying used to describe the unexpected twists and turns of politics is just the phrase to illustrate what Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has endured over the past year — and that’s unlikely to change in 2023.

Kishida heads into the new year with diminished political capital. Ever since former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s assassination in July, Kishida has suffered one setback after another: From his ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s ties to the controversial Unification Church, to criticism over Abe’s state funeral, a series of resignations by Cabinet ministers and the impact of inflation, several developments have diminished Kishida’s standing.

Then, the chaos in December over how to fund an unprecedented increase in defense spending capped Kishida’s tumultuous year. Following strong criticism over the prime minister’s proposed tax hike from not only within his own party but also the Cabinet, Kishida shelved the decision on when to introduce the tax plan.

“I don’t think there was any problem” in the decision-making process, Kishida told a news conference on Dec. 16. “But the government will make sure to continue offering thorough explanations.”

While his party may have questions over Kishida’s leadership, the prime minister’s support rate, which plummeted to 33.1% in December from 63.2% in early July in a Kyodo News poll, shows the public is even less happy.

Amid this gloomy political climate, and with no clear path toward an improved support rate any time soon, here is the million dollar question in the world of Japanese politics: Will Kishida be able to survive 2023 as prime minister?

Against all the odds, political experts say yes.

In fact, they say he may be around for a while, but not because of Kishida’s ability as prime minister.

“It could possibly be a long reign as long as there aren’t any major scandals,” said Katsuyuki Yakushiji, a political science professor at Toyo University. “There isn’t a group in the LDP with the definitive power (to oust Kishida). There is no viable candidate who can replace him either.”

The weakness of even top LDP members was evident when party lawmakers openly opposed Kishida’s plan to raise taxes to fund the defense spending increase, with many in the party preferring the additional outlay be covered by government bonds. Even industry minister Yasutoshi Nishimura and economic security minister Sanae Takaichi were critical of Kishida’s plan.

In the end, however, the disagreement didn’t result in a major head-on clash, with party members agreeing to pass the issue to the LDP’s tax panel chief — a typical decision-making process for national politicians looking to settle policy disagreements.

The situation now facing Kishida is similar to what it was in the mid-1990s, when Japan had its first Socialist prime minister since 1948, Tomiichi Murayama. Murayama’s Japanese Socialist Party formed a government alongside the LDP — headed by Yohei Kono, who was leader of the dovish faction now led by Kishida — and New Party Sakigake.

At the time, dovish politicians were in power, while hawkish politicians were embroiled in an internal conflict. The hawkish Seiwa Seisaku Kenkyukai, which is now the largest LDP faction, was fighting over who would become leader after former Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe died in 1991. Shinzo Abe, a son of Shintaro Abe, led the faction until he was killed.

Fast forward 30 years and the dovish Kishida is at the helm, while members of the Abe faction are at odds over who should become leader. The lack of unity in the 97-member caucus makes it difficult for them to rally for a single politician to fight against Kishida, and force the prime minister to step down.

Still, well-known LDP veterans have been floated in media polls as possible replacements. In an Asahi Shimbun poll in mid-December, digital minister Taro Kono ranked as the top politician people wanted to see as the next prime minister, followed by former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba, Takaichi and former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.

But LDP presidential elections are decided based on party politics. Kono, who belongs to the faction led by former Prime Minister Taro Aso, doesn’t have enough votes to be elected. The same goes for Ishiba, Takaichi and Suga.

Key posts

Such circumstances are likely to allow Kishida to stay in power for 2023. But for the prime minister to enjoy a stable administration, it’s crucial that he fills key Cabinet and party posts with lawmakers who can coordinate policies on his behalf — namely the chief Cabinet secretary, deputy chief Cabinet secretary and the secretary-general of the LDP, Yakushiji said.

“Kishida’s political base will stabilize if he can place capable lawmakers in key posts in the administration and in his party,” Yakushiji said.

Rumors are swirling in Nagatacho, the nation’s political heart, that Kishida may again reshuffle the Cabinet and LDP executive lineups before the next parliamentary session convenes in January. That might help Kishida regain some political power after having been forced to replace four ministers in the past two months. Reconstruction minister Kenya Akiba resigned Tuesday following a political funds scandal.

From the start, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno, who is from the faction led by Abe, was not seen as experienced enough for the job, which requires managing bureaucrats as well as coordinating with the ruling coalition on key policies.

Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Seiji Kihara, who is from the same faction as Kishida, is considered a close aide to the prime minister, but observers say he is doing a poor job when it comes to political maneuvering on behalf of Kishida.

Past prime ministers that enjoyed long tenures almost always had heavyweights as chief Cabinet secretary who worked tirelessly behind the scenes in pursuit of the prime minister’s agenda. Suga served as the top government spokesman for much of Abe’s record-setting tenure, while Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi had Yasuo Fukuda as his right hand from 2001 to 2004. Suga and Fukuda both went on to become prime ministers.

Political calendar

Kishida will face two key challenges next year: a series of local elections in April and the Group of Seven summit in his home constituency of Hiroshima Prefecture in May.

If the LDP has a poor showing in the April elections, there may be increased pressure from within the party to replace Kishida after the G7 summit. Another scenario could see Kishida’s support rate rise after the G7 summit, prompting the prime minister to dissolve the Lower House for a snap election while he enjoys a tailwind.

Kishida “lost the ‘golden three years’ of not having a national level election. So somewhere around the Hiroshima summit may be the only opportunity for him to take the chance (of calling a snap poll),” former Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, a member of the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, said during a radio broadcast aired early November.

With no national election due until 2025, it initially appeared after the summer’s Upper House vote that Kishida would have the freedom to pursue his policy agenda without having to worry about appeasing voters.

Noda’s remark created a buzz in Nagatacho over Kishida’s future beyond the Hiroshima summit.

For those casting around for historical precedent, look no further than 1979.

After the LDP gained momentum from a strong showing in unified local elections in April and the subsequent G7 summit in Tokyo in June, Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira dissolved the Lower House to seek a mandate for the introduction of a consumption tax. But faced with strong opposition, including from within his own party, Ohira was forced to drop the idea just before the general election in October. The LDP suffered a substantial defeat and failed to retain its majority in the Lower House.

Still, Jun Iio, a political professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, says Kishida is unlikely to call a general election after the Hiroshima summit because the meeting will probably only give a small boost to his support rate. Kishida is also unlikely to be ousted by the LDP, as it’s difficult to force out a prime minister when there is no national election looming.

The April local elections, consisting of polls for governors and prefectural and city assemblies, are unlikely to have a catastrophic effect on the Kishida administration, since they won’t impact parliamentary seats, Iio said.

“It’s going to be hard unless the prime minister is fed up and steps down on his own,” he said.

The more likely scenario therefore is for Kishida to stay on despite his lower support rate, creating an impasse in politics and causing more frustration within the LDP.

Key election in 2024

The bigger focus is what happens in 2024 — with the LDP presidential election slated for that fall.

The LDP could once again be clashing in December 2023 over the timeline of tax hikes to cover defense spending — with that agenda item having been shelved for 12 months.

Kishida could choose to hold a general election, in the belief that leading his party to victory in that poll would solidify a second term for him as LDP president in the fall.

If he waits too long to hold a Lower House election, with the next one due by October 2025 at the latest, he will have fewer options on the table. The next Upper House election is slated for summer of 2025.

“We will decide when (to raise the taxes) but there will be an election before that,” Kishida said on a BS-TBS program on Dec. 27, in a rare comment on the potential timing of an election. The tax hike is slated for some time between 2024 and 2027, he said.

But what Iio is most focused on is the fate of the LDP. Without heavyweights such as Abe, who had a tight grip on conservative lawmakers, the party could struggle for unity, with frustrated LDP members splitting from the party without thinking of the consequences.

The LDP-Komeito coalition is also on shaky ground. In early December, Jiji Press reported that the LDP is considering adding the Democratic Party for the People, an opposition party that occasionally votes with the ruling bloc on key bills, as a third coalition member as early as January, citing party sources. Komeito is opposed to a three-way coalition, which would dilute their influence in the decision-making process.

In the end, voters, fed up with internal fighting, may distance themselves from the LDP, making elections more unpredictable.

Much like what has happened in other countries, that “could cause a populist leader to emerge and take power,” said Iio.

Source : Japan Times