Camp David Trilateral Success Unseen in Polls for Prime Minister Kishida

Dr. Satohiro Akimoto
Chairman and President of Sasakawa USA

Publications Camp David Trilateral Success Unseen in Polls for Prime Minister Kishida

Camp David Success

From left to right, Republic of Korea President Yoon Suk, U.S. President Joe Biden, and Japan Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at a joint press conference for the historic Japan-U.S.-ROK trilateral summit at Camp David in the United States on August 18, 2023. (Official Website of the Prime Minister of Japan and His Cabinet)

Prime Minister Kishida proudly said on August 18, “It was truly significant and impressive that the three leaders gathered today at Camp David, which is not only a site of historic importance, but also, as President Biden said during the press conference, a symbol of a new beginning” following the trilateral summit with U.S. President Joe Biden and Republic of Korea (ROK) President Yoon Suk. Prime Minister Kishida pointed out the historic importance of elevating and expanding Japan-U.S.-ROK cooperation while also laying the foundation for the continuous and stable strengthening of the trilateral. He concluded his remarks by saying “I had a satisfying day.”[1]

Indeed, it was a historic meeting for Japan and the ROK to share diplomatic and national security priorities while putting aside historical issues between the two countries. Furthermore, it institutionalized the trilateral alliance among the U.S., Japan, and the ROK, with a shared belief in the strategic vision of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” the concept of which was introduced by former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Prime Minister Kishida must have felt good about building on the political legacy of Prime Minister Abe, Japan’s longest serving prime minister.

Stagnant Approval Ratings

Prime Minister Kishida certainly hoped the historic and successful trilateral meeting with President Biden and Present Yoon would help improve his depressed approval ratings which are low due to a series of political missteps, such as his eldest son’s misuse of the prime minister’s official residence, and technical troubles with the My Number Card system. Prime Minister Kishida’s hope was not totally off the mark as the Japanese public expressed high approval for the trilateral cooperation among the U.S., Japan, and the ROK at Camp David. In the latest Yomiuri poll, 60 percent of the respondents approved of the trilateral cooperation, while only 27 percent disapproved.[2] In the latest Nikkei poll, 55 percent of the respondents approved of the trilateral cooperation, while only 28 percent disapproved.[3]

However, unfortunately for Prime Minister Kishida, high approval ratings for trilateral cooperation do not seem to improve general approval ratings for him. In the latest polls by Yomiuri, Nikkei, and Mainichi taken after the trilateral summit at Camp David, they show there has not been any significant movement up or down in Prime Minister Kishida’s approval ratings following the successful trilateral meeting at Camp David.

Figure 1. Approval ratings of Prime Minister Kishida’s Cabinet in August 2023.

Missed Opportunity

On August 8, 2023, Prime Minister Kishida attended the 2nd My Number Information Comprehensive Inspection Headquarters at the Prime Minister’s Office. Prime Minister Kishida’s poll numbers have been affected by technical issues with the My Number card system. (Official Website of the Prime Minister of Japan and His Cabinet)

There is no doubt that Prime Minister Kishida has been seeking the best possible timing for dissolving the House of Representatives and calling a snap election to ensure his re-election as president of the Liberal Democratic Party in September 2024. He had an opportunity to do so at the end of the regular Diet session in June, as there were internal party polling data that the LDP would win a snap election, if it had been called. However, Prime Minister Kishida did not do so because he thought it would be too early considering the fact that the LDP presidency election would be more than a year away. Even if he had scored a victory in June, the effects of a snap election victory may not last long enough to secure a victory in the LDP party’s presidential election.

Instead, Prime Minister Kishida thought it would be best to call a snap election sometime in the fall of this year, combining it with a reshuffle of cabinet posts and party leadership positions. Since his calendar is very crowded in September with the East Asia Summit in Jakarta on September 7, the G20 Summit in New Delhi between September 9 and 10, and the United Nations General Debate from September 19 to 26, October seems to be the best timing for calling a snap election while avoiding a generally busy time toward the end of the year leading into the new year festivities. If he scores a victory in a snap election less than a year from the party presidency election, he could strengthen his odds of being reelected LDP party president or avoid an LDP presidential election all together.

However, Prime Minister Kishida’s low approval rating essentially closes a window of opportunity for dissolving the House of Representatives and calling a snap election at this time. There is too much risk of losing several seats in the House of Representatives in a snap election and thus creating openings for his possible contenders to gain footing to challenge him in the LDP party presidency election in September 2024.

Cabinet Reshuffling

Prime Minister Kishida will likely reshuffle the Cabinet positions and party leadership positions in September, even if he realizes he has missed an opportunity to call a snap election. The focal point of the Cabinet reshuffle is Secretary-General Toshimitsu Motegi, possibly the biggest challenger to Prime Minister Kishida for LDP party presidency. Mr. Motegi is leader of the third largest faction with 54 members in the LDP.

It is a complicated calculus on the part of Prime Minister Kishida, as he must consider the fact that his faction is only the fourth biggest with 45 members in the LDP. In other words, he must maintain support of the Abe faction, the largest faction with 100 members, and the Aso faction, the second largest faction with 55 members. It is further complicated by the fact that the Abe faction has not been able to select a single leader more than a year after the assassination of former Prime Minister Abe. As the likelihood of calling a snap election diminishes, it is expected that the Cabinet reshuffling by the Prime Minister this time will be relatively controlled to avoid political risks.

[1] “Press Conference by Prime Minister Kishida Regarding His Visit to the United States and Other Matters,” Prime Minister’s Office of Japan, August 18, 2023, https://japan.kantei.go.jp/101_kishida/statement/202308/18kaiken.html.

[2] Yomiuri Polls, August 25-27, 2023, https://www.yomiuri.co.jp/election/yoron-chosa/20230827-OYT1T501.

[3] Nikkei Polls, August 25-27, 2023, https://vdata.nikkei.com/newsgraphics/cabinet-approval-rating/.

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