Prime Minister Kishida Labors through Navigating Unchartered Waters

Dr. Satohiro Akimoto
Chairman and President of Sasakawa USA

Publications Prime Minister Kishida Labors through Navigating Unchartered Waters

Approval Ratings Below Danger Level

On February 29, 2024, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida attended the House of Representatives Committee on Political Ethics, where he stated that the inappropriate handling of political funds by the Liberal Democratic Party’s factions “raised may suspicions among the people and caused distrust in politics.” (Official Website of the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan)

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida served his 887th day as prime minister on March 7, 2024, becoming the eighth longest serving prime minister in the post-war period. He surpassed former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, who was an iconic and controversial political leader with dynamic energy yet dubious power based on money politics. However, Prime Minister Kishida was nonchalant about it, saying, “You just take one day at a time, and there is nothing special to say about length in office.”

Prime Minister Kishida might have been too preoccupied with his alarmingly shrinking political fortune. His approval rating has been declining constantly since May 2023, when his approval rating was 47.3 percent and disapproval rating was 38.8 percent. The latest Kyodo News polls taken on March 9 and 10 shows the approval rating for Prime Minister Kishida has dropped 4.4 percentage points from 24.5 percent in the Kyodo News polls taken on February 3 and 4 to a record low for Prime Minister Kishida of 20.1 percent.[1] This is well below 30 percent, which is generally regarded as the danger line for a prime minister to survive.

The serious decline in Prime Minister Kishida’s approval rating stems from the latest political scandal over the Liberal Democratic Party’s slush fund. To put it in a nutshell, the LDP major factions have been nonreporting, underreporting, and misallocating kickbacks from LDP political fundraising events for a long time. While 10 LDP lawmakers belonging to three factions have been indicted or issued summary indictments, all five top leaders of the largest faction, the former Abe faction, which had the largest kickbacks over the years, have gone unscathed.

Prime Minister Kishida, who felt the public’s deep anger, surprisingly over a two-day period attended a parliamentary political ethics committee session together with the top-five leaders of the former Abe faction. However, incensed constituents take the slush fund scandal seriously and the session, which was mostly window-dressing, accomplished nothing.

As a result, 91.4 percent of respondents in the Kyodo polls believe “lawmakers who were involved in the kickback scandal have not been held accountable,” and the approval rating for the LDP in the same polls has dropped to 24.5 percent, its lowest in over a decade.

Dissolution of LDP Factions

Prime Minister Kishida did not stand idly while the high-profile and potentially devastating scandals came to light. As a matter of fact, he did what no one anticipated when it became apparent that a former accountant of his own faction would be prosecuted over the slush fund scandal. Despite the fact that he, as chair, was leading discussions on what to do with factions and money at the party’s Political Reform New Headquarters, Prime Minister Kishida abruptly announced the dissolution of his own faction, Kochikai.

This was a drastic decision by Prime Minister Kishida. First, Prime Minister Kishida was very proud of being a leader of the Kochikai. It is the oldest and most respected faction within the LDP, with close to 70 years of history. The faction has produced five prime ministers including Prime Minister Kishida. His grandfather, Masaki Kishida, was a founding member of Kochikai, when former Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda took the initiative to establish a faction. His father, Fumitake Kishida, was also a member of Kochikai.

Second, factions are fundamental to intraparty operations and power competition within the LDP. Factions are an institutionalized part of the LDP in terms of recruiting and approval of candidates for elections, fundraising and distribution of funds, Cabinet post appointments, the development of junior lawmakers, and the selection of party leader. Prime Minister Kishida always paid the utmost attention to maintaining support of other powerful factions, as his faction is only the fourth largest in terms of the number of faction members.

Prime Minister Kishida’s decision to dissolve his own faction produced a chain-reaction of dissolution of the Abe faction, the biggest faction; the Nikai faction, led by the powerful old guard Toshihiro Nikai; and Moriyama faction, led by Hiroshi Moriyama, chairman of the LDP General Council. Both the Abe faction and the Nikai faction had no choice but to disband themselves as their respective chief accountants were indicted over the slush fund scandal. The Moriyama faction has decided to dissolve, even though no one in the faction had been indicted, as the faction system itself has been criticized for its existence.

Taro Aso, vice president of the LDP, and Toshimitsu Motegi, secretary-general of the LDP, decided not to dissolve their respective factions, because they found no reason to do so, as no one in their respective factions had been indicted over the slush fund scandal. However, while these two factions continue to exist, they are not in a position to flex their political muscle, as factions are largely regarded as negative of late.

It is not clear what Prime Minister Kishida’s real intention was when he dissolved his own faction. He certainly hoped to produce positive political momentum and regain the trust of the Japanese people by voluntarily introducing revolutionary reform within the LDP. Unfortunately, this gamble has not panned out, as his approval ratings continue to decline. Although he might have succeeded in destroying the Abe faction, potentially the biggest challenger to his administration, there is no control over roughly 100 former Abe faction members, who are now angry at Prime Minister Kishida’s unilateral decision.

Furthermore, the Aso faction and Motegi faction, which have supported Prime Minister Kishida, are upset with him, as he consulted neither Aso nor Motegi about dissolving his own faction. Both Aso and Motegi need to maintain their respective factions to preserve their political weight. Motegi is said to be particularly upset, as had he lost his own faction, it would be very difficult for him to become prime minister in the future. If both Aso and Motegi completely lose trust in Prime Minister Kishida, they might not support him to continue as president of the LDP and, thus, put pressure on him to resign.

Muddling Through?

Prime Minister Kishida must extend his LDP presidency beyond September, when his current term is up, in order to continue to serve as prime minister. There will be important events coming up in the near future. First, Prime Minister Kishida will visit Washington in the first half of April to have a summit meeting with President Joe Biden and address a joint session of Congress. Will his visit to the U.S. have a positive effect on his political fortune? Unfortunately, the international leadership Kishida demonstrated as host of the G7 meeting last May did not generate such positive effects for him.

Japan’s House of Representatives passed the fiscal year 2024 budget with a majority vote at its rare Saturday plenary session on March 2, 2024. (Official Website of the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan)

Second, there will be three Lower House by-elections in Shimane, Nagasaki, and Tokyo, on April 28. If the LDP wins all three elections, Prime Minister Kishida will surely get some political momentum. However, it is unlikely to happen, as the LDP seems to have effectively forfeited Nagasaki without a strong candidate. The LDP will face difficult races in Shimane and Tokyo, as well. If the LDP does not show respectable results in the three by-elections, LDP lawmakers will seriously consider whether they can protect their own seats with Prime Minister Kishida as the leader of the party.

And yet, despite all these tough political environments, Prime Minister Kishida might be able to muddle through for the foreseeable future. As a matter of fact, Prime Minister Kishida recently demonstrated his resolve and aggressiveness to attain a political victory. On March 2, Prime Minister Kishida successfully had the House of Representatives pass the fiscal 2024 budget on a rare Saturday session and, thus, ensure automatic enactment at the House of Councillors by the end of the current fiscal year on March 31. Despite severe criticism over the slush fund scandal and strong opposition to the budget by the opposition parties, Prime Minister Kishida was able to get it done by playing a strong hand.

Japanese political pundits often use donkan-ryoku (roughly translated to “ignorance is bliss”) to describe Prime Minister Kishida’s resiliency. In other words, it appears that Prime Minister Kishida does not seem to detect what is happening around him and therefore it does not impact him. It is a kind of mental toughness shrouded in ignorance. However, I do not think this is the case. I think he is aware of what is happening around him and that he may prove to be a resilient political leader for Japan by muddling through this difficult political environment.

[1] All poll numbers are from the Kyodo polls on February 3 and 4, 2024.

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