Prime Minister Kishida Juggles Peak Accomplishments with Upcoming By-Elections

Dr. Satohiro Akimoto
Chairman and President of Sasakawa USA

Publications Prime Minister Kishida Juggles Peak Accomplishments with Upcoming By-Elections

“I only have the same answer, as always. I am right in the middle of examining the budget at the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly. I just put all my effort into running the Tokyo Metropolitan government.” It has become almost a daily routine for Tokyo Metropolitan Governor Yuriko Koike to answers the same question; whether she would leave the governor’s office to run for the Tokyo No. 15 constituency for the House of Representatives in a by-election scheduled for April 28. She maintains her poker-face smile so as not to give any hint of her true intentions.

Photo: Japan Prime Minister Kishida Fumio and U.S. President Joe Biden shake hands during a meeting in the Oval Office at the White House on January 13, 2023, in Washington, DC. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

In the meantime, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is preparing for his upcoming Official Visit to the Unites States. The visit will include a state dinner at the White House on April 10 and his address to a joint session of Congress on April 11. It is of great significance for Prime Minister Kishida to be invited to the White House for an Official Visit as the leader of the most important ally of the U.S. in the Indo-Pacific region. Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was a transformative leader, who had ushered in a new era of the U.S.-Japan alliance, in which Japan played a more assertive and equal role in partnership with the U.S. It was customary back then to contrast former Prime Minister Abe as a hawk and then Foreign Minister Kishida, who was serving in the Abe Cabinet, as a dove.

However, Prime Minister Kishida has turned out to be a transformative leader in a way that nobody thought he could. He has concretely advanced critical issues in military and economic security, such as the enactment of the Economic Security Promotion Law, doubling the defense budget, and the introduction of counter-strike capabilities. For Prime Minister Kishida, the upcoming Official Visit to Washington will be a culminating moment of his achievements as prime minister of Japan and a leading global figure, which the U.S. president takes seriously.

While Prime Minister Kishida is earnestly looking forward to his important trip to Washington, his mind might be more focused on the domestic political calendar. More precisely, he is surely focusing on how best to continue to serve as prime minister beyond September this year, when his term as president of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) will be up.

Furthermore, a political event, which will have a significant effect on Prime Minister Kishida’s political calculus, is a set of three by-elections in the Nagasaki No. 3, Shimane No. 1, and Tokyo No. 15 constituencies for the House of Representatives. The by-elections are critically important political tests for Prime Minister Kishida and the LDP, as the party is taking flack over a political slush fund scandal involving the party’s powerful factions. The general public’s distrust is so strong that approval ratings for the Kishida administration have declined to the mid to low 20 percent range and approval ratings for the LDP have also declined to the high to mid 20 percent range in major polls.

Approval ratings for Prime Minister Kishida and the LDP have tumbled 10 to 15 points lower than a year ago in major polls. For example, in NHK polls taken from February 11 to 13, 2023, the approval rating for Prime Minister Kishida was 41 percent and the approval rating for the LDP was 36.3 percent. However, in NHK polls taken from February 10 to 12, 2024, the approval rating for Prime Minister Kishida was 25 percent and approval rating for the LDP was 28.6 percent. That being said, one factor that has aided Prime Minister Kishida has been that the opposition parties are fragmented and unpopular among the general public. Despite lackluster performance by the opposition parties, public support for Prime Minister Kishida and the LDP is significantly lower than 30 percent, which is regarded as the danger zone.

Under such political circumstances, the three by-elections, the Nagasaki No. 3, Shimane No. 1, and Tokyo No. 15 constituencies for the House of Representatives, will have significant bearings on Prime Minister Kishida’s political fortune. The best scenario for Prime Minister Kishida would be that the LDP candidates win all three by-elections. Prime Minister Kishida would be able to solidify his support from the party members to make a strong case to continue to serve as prime minister after September, when his term as the party president expires. In the wake of perfect victories in the three by-elections, he may even consider holding a snap election in the House of Representatives to eliminate the possibility of challengers emerging in the party presidential election in September.

The worst-case scenario for Prime Minister Kishida would be that the LDP candidates lose all three by-elections in April. This would be disastrous for Prime Minister Kishida, as he would lose his footing within the party and other members might try to force him to step down as the party leader. After all, the longevity of party leaders is determined by whether he or she can lead party members to election victories. Challengers would see opportunities emerge to replace Prime Minister Kishida as the leader in the party presidential election in September, if not earlier.

At this particular time, the perfect scenario of three LDP victories is highly unlikely, whereas the worst-case scenario could occur. For Prime Minister Kishida, if the LDP scores two victories, that is a big political win. The reality is that the LDP is experiencing headwinds in all three by-elections. The party’s slush fund scandal is not over and casts a long dark shadow on the party. The opposition parties continue to go after powerful LDP leaders, including Prime Minister Kishida, for their possible roles in the scandal. The media reports are relentless, and the general public is constantly reminded of the shady schemes within the party.

The Nagasaki No. 3 constituency is very precarious for the LDP. As a matter of fact, the LDP originally planned to accept losing by default as the party did not intend to even field a candidate in the constituency. The LDP thought it would be difficult to score a victory in the constituency as it was vacated by former LDP veteran lawmaker Yaichi Tanigawa, who resigned after a summary indictment over the slush fund scandal had been issued against him. Although Tanigawa left the party, serious damage has been done to the support base of the LDP in the constituency. Furthermore, there was a calculus that it would not be worth putting too much effort and resources into the by-election as Nagasaki prefecture would lose one seat in the next reallocation of seats in the House of Representatives anyway.

Political poster for the LDP backed candidate Norimasa Nishikori in the Shimane No. 1 constituency by-election to be held on April 28, 2024.

The Shimane No. 1 constituency has long been regarded as a stronghold of the LDP. The constituency has been vacant due to the death of former LDP veteran lawmaker, secretary-general of the party, and speaker of the House of Representatives, Hiroyuki Hosoda. He was the leader of the powerful faction Seiwa Seisaku Kenkyu Kai for seven years until he passed the faction leadership to former Prime Minister Abe. Hosoda had been under serious fire as the faction has been at the center of the slush fund scandal. He was also disgraced after he assumed speakership for the House of Representatives over personal conduct, such as a harassment case by a female reporter, and a close relationship with a controversial religious group, the former Toitsu Kyokai (the Unification Church). Because of strong backlash against Hosoda and severe criticism against the LDP, it will be a tough fight for Norimasa Nishikori, the LDP candidate. The opposition parties have been focusing on an upset victory in the LDP kingdom.

The Tokyo No. 15 constituency is the most intriguing. The constituency has been vacated by former LDP lawmaker, Mito Kakizawa, who had been indicted on charges of vote-buying and illegal campaign practices in a mayoral election in Koto-ward in Tokyo. Since the reputation of the party was seriously damaged within the constituency, the LDP has been slow in the selection process for its officially endorsed candidate. While the LDP is having a difficult time, the opposition parties are also not in a strong position. Both Nippon Ishin no Kai and the Japanese Communist Party have decided to respectively field a rookie politician. The Constitutional Democratic Party has been experiencing difficulty in selecting a candidate, as well.

Photo: Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike speaks to reporters at Tokyo Metropolitan Government headquarters on April 24, 2023. (Photo by Kyodo News via Getty Images)

Under such circumstances, there is a rumor that Governor of Tokyo, Yuriko Koike, might be interested in entering the race. There is no doubt that Governor Koike, who is a well-known political figure, would score a big win, if she decides to run in the by-election. She showed her political influence last December when Tomoka Okubo; a rookie politician and a former Tokyo Metropolitan Government employee backed by Governor Koike’s political party Tomin First no Kai (Tokyo Citizens First) together with the LDP, Komeito, and the Democratic Party for the People; was elected Koto ward mayor.

While Governor Koike’s term will not be up until July, she could avoid criticism as the end of the term is near. If she wins a seat in the House of Representatives and somehow finds a way to return to the LDP, she could become a challenger to Prime Minister Kishida in the party presidential election in September. While it might seem like a farfetched idea, Governor Koike still maintains good relationships with former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and former Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai. It is worth watching Governor Koike’s next political maneuver.

Prime Minister Kishida will have his important U.S.-Japan relations Official Visit to Washington, with a possible stop in North Carolina, in the second week of April. It should be a glorious moment for Prime Minister Kishida, but his mind will be preoccupied on the three critical by-elections scheduled on April 28.

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