Prime Minister Fumio Kishida continues to muddle through Japan’s domestic political landscape. His approval ratings have stagnated dangerously low in the wake of criticism over the close relationship between the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) lawmakers and the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (formerly the Unification Church). He relies on former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, one of the old guard, to retain support from former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s adherents—such as Economic Security Minister Sanae Takaichi and Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Yasutoshi Nishimura—who openly opposed his tax increase proposal to meet increased defense spending. Prime Minister Kishida’s economic policy called “new form of capitalism” seems vague and has generated no vitality in Japan’s long stagnant economy, despite the fact that he has been calling for raising wages and controlling inflation. The Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP), a major liberal opposition party, and Nippon Ishin no Kai, a major conservative opposition party, continue to keep their strategic cooperation, and have achieved the enactment of a new legislation to aid victims of the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification. In short, Prime Minister Kishida is facing a delicate situation where he must gauge how to best extend his party presidency beyond September 2024, when his current term will end.
Prime Minister Kishida was elected president of the LDP on September 29, 2021. As the LDP term for presidency is for three years, there will be another election for presidency in September 2024. Prime Minister Kishida, who surely intends to serve another term, must consider a political strategy to ensure re-election as LDP president.
An important political schedule for Prime Minister Kishida to consider is the current term of the House of Representatives, which is scheduled to end in October 2025. Prime Minister Kishida is widely expected to hold a snap election sometime after the mid-point of the current term, October 2023, to solidify his standing among fellow LDP members to ensure re-election as party president.
A focal point is whether Prime Minister Kishida will be able to hold a snap election before the LDP presidency. If Prime Minister Kishida can do this, then he has a chance to rein in potential challengers, such as Secretary General Toshimitsu Motegi and Minister of Digital Transformation Taro Kono, for party presidency. But he must have a convincing victory in a snap election to solidify his leadership within the party.
If Prime Minister Kishida cannot hold a snap election before the LDP party election, then he will have to face serious challengers, who sense Prime Minister Kishida’s political vulnerability, in an election for the LDP party presidency. Under this circumstance, the election for the LDP presidency essentially becomes an election to choose a leader to battle in the next election for the House of Representatives. This will create a potentially dangerous situation for Prime Minister Kishida as the calculus for LDP lawmakers becomes who would best help re-elect them.
Prime Minister Kishida understands this complicated political calendar very well. Former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga faced exactly the same situation after he was elected the LDP president on September 14, 2020. Since he succeeded former Prime Minister Abe following his abrupt resignation, Prime Minister Suga had only a year until the next election for the LDP presidency. Despite the fact that Prime Minister Suga sought to hold a snap election to avoid a contentious election for the LDP presidency, he could not find an optimal time to do so as his approval ratings severely eroded due to criticism of the government’s measures against COVID-19 and the unpopularity of his decision to hold the Tokyo Olympics.
Prime Minister Kishida dexterously sensed former Prime Minister Suga’s vulnerability when many believed Suga was determined to run for another term as the LDP leader. Kishida began to apply pressure on him by suddenly proposing a term limit for the highest LDP leadership roles, which many believed to target an old guard, Toshihiro Nikai, who supported Kishida. Prime Minister Kishida’s pressure exposed former Prime Minister Suga’s weakness and, thus, eventually Suga gave up running for the LDP party presidency.
Snap Election Timing
Prime Minister Kishida will need to consider several important political elements. First, he must work hard to improve the approval ratings of his Cabinet to reasonably expect a victory in order to hold a snap election. His Cabinet’s approval ratings stayed high until just prior to the House of Councillors election in July 2022. However, Prime Minister Kishida’s approval ratings have been taking a serious beating, first with his decision to hold a state funeral for the late Prime Minister Abe and then his handling of ties between some LDP lawmakers and the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification. Prime Minister Kishida’s approval rating have dipped under 40 percent, which is just about the same range when former Prime Minister Suga was forced to give up a second term.
An important political agenda is the introduction of tax increases to cover the increase in defense spending. The Kishida Cabinet decided to increase corporate, income, and tobacco taxes, alongside imposing a defense tax to beef up defense spending to a total of 43 trillion yen ($312 billion), roughly two percent of annual gross domestic product. The government announced that it expects to implement the tax measures “at an appropriate time in fiscal 2024 or later.” The government is expected to introduce a bill to formalize tax increases in a regular session of the Diet in 2024.
This is a tricky issue for Prime Minister Kishida. While he would like to score a convincing victory in a snap election prior to an election of the LDP presidency, increasing taxes will not put the LDP in an advantageous position. As a matter of fact, the opposition parties, such as Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP), are demanding the LDP leadership hold a snap election before the tax increases will be taken up in a Diet session in 2024. The opposition parties see political openings surrounding tax increases combined with declining approval ratings of the Kishida Cabinet.
Against this political backdrop, Prime Minister Kishida has been elevating measures to prevent declining birth rates as a central policy. It is widely recognized that a shrinking population is a serious issue for Japan and the country must do something to reverse the trend or at least stop the continuous population decline. In a recent Kyodo poll, 62.9 percent of respondents support Prime Minister Kishida’s proposal to double the budget for children and child-rearing. Prime Minister Kishida plans to come up with a comprehensive plan to counter the declining birthrate by June. He is seemingly paving the way for the introduction of a tax hike for increased defense spending by taking up measures to reverse the declining birthrate, a less difficult policy issue.
If his approval ratings recover somewhat, Prime Minister Kishida is likely to call a snap election within 2023 to have a better chance of being re-elected as the LDP president in September 2024. Japan will host a G7 summit in Hiroshima in May 2023. Prime Minister Kishida is determined to make it a showcase of his international leadership in his hometown and hopes to re-establish his domestic leadership. He traveled to France, Italy, the U.K., Canada, and the U.S. last month to secure support for the G7 summit in Hiroshima. It is most likely that Prime Minister Kishida will call a snap election before the G7 summit.
Prime Minister Kishida shuffled his Cabinet members and key LDP posts on August 10, 2022. It is possible for Prime Minister Kishida to reshuffle his Cabinet members and key LDP posts sometime between the G7 summit and August when one year terms expire for LDP leadership positions. It can be an effective way to revitalize support for his leadership by promoting the next generation of diversified lawmakers and also to check potential successors from openly challenging his leadership. If these goals are achieved, it is possible for Prime Minister Kishida to call an extraordinary session of the Diet in September 2023 and quickly dissolve the House of Councillors.
 “78% urge election before tax hikes to cover Japan defense budget rise,” Kyodo News, January 29, 2023, https://english.kyodonews.net/news/2023/01/d7cb11e278f0-breaking-news-63-oppose-consumption-tax-hike-to-cover-japans-child-policies-poll.html?phrase=Uyghurs&words=.