Prime Minister Kishida’s Snap Election Balancing Act

Dr. Satohiro Akimoto
Chairman and President of Sasakawa USA

Publications Prime Minister Kishida’s Snap Election Balancing Act

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is riding high on political waves. His approval rating has greatly improved since the beginning of the year. While the approval rating dipped to 33.1 percent in December, it climbed up to 47.3 percent in May.[1] In the latest Yomiuri and FNN polls, favorability of the Kishida cabinet has gone over 50 percent for the first time since last summer.[2] Taking advantage of his rising popularity, Prime Minister Kishida led the LDP to a victory in Japan’s unified nationwide local elections held on April 9 and April 23.

Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida attended an election campaign in support of the Liberal Democratic Party candidate in Chiba prefecture on April 15, 2023. (Photo by Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP via Getty Images)

Of particular importance, Prime Minister Kishida scored four wins out of five by-elections, which fill four vacated House of Representatives seats (Yamaguchi districts 1 and 4, Wakayama district 1, Chiba district 5) and one vacated House of Councilors seat (an Oita prefectural district), held on April 23. Since Prime Minister Kishida set a goal of scoring three wins out of five by-elections, scoring four wins, even though some margins were slim, was a major victory for the prime minister. It was a dramatic change from the three by-elections held two years ago under the leadership of former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. The LDP lost all three of them, and former Prime Minister Suga lost an opportunity to call a snap election and eventually gave up running for the party presidency five months later. In contrast to Prime Minister Suga, Prime Minister Kishida successfully survived as leader of the LDP by leading the party’s candidates to victory.

In the wake of electoral victories in April, Prime Minister Kishida held an incredibly successful G7 summit in Hiroshima, his hometown. He demonstrated his leadership by orchestrating unity among the G7 leaders together with the dramatic appearance of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in person. It is safe to say that the G7 summit in Hiroshima was one of the most impressive and meaningful G7 summits that Japanese prime ministers have ever hosted. The Japanese public has acknowledged his achievement. In the latest FNN polls, 70.3 percent of the respondents approved Prime Minister Kishida’s leadership as chair of the G7.[3] In the latest Kyodo polls, 70.8 percent of respondents considered world leaders visiting the Peace Memorial Museum as a significant step toward a world free of nuclear weapons.[4]

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida spoke in front of the Cenotaph for Atomic Bomb Victims and the Atomic Bomb Dome in the Peace Memorial Park during the G7 summit on May 21, 2023, in Hiroshima, Japan. (Photo by Kimimasa Mayama – Pool/Getty Images)

Under such positive political circumstances for Prime Minister Kishida, the most urgent question in Japanese politics today is whether Prime Minister Kishida will call a snap election by taking advantage of his favorability among Japanese voters. At this time, Prime Minister Kishida might not have a strong desire to call a general election by dissolving the House of Representatives, which has not reached the halfway point in its current term, as the LDP has a comfortable majority in both chambers of parliament. As a matter of fact, Prime Minister Kishida himself has already denied that he is considering a snap election.

However, no one in Japanese politics seems to believe Prime Minister Kishida’s denial. In reality, an underlining Japanese political logic is that if Prime Minister Kishida desires to extend his term as prime minister, it would be advantageous for him to avoid a contentious election within the LDP for the party leadership scheduled in September 2024. The best way to do so is by building a strong support base within the LDP by winning a general election and preventing any serious challengers for the LDP presidency from emerging. He would then be automatically re-elected as the party president.

Considering such political logic combined with the political calendar that involves the end of the current Diet session in June, possible reshuffling of the LDP leadership positions and cabinet posts in August, the halfway point of the current term for the House of Representatives in October, and the beginning of the regular Diet session in January 2024 leading to the LDP presidency election that September, most political observers seem to believe that Prime Minister Kishida will likely dissolve the House of Representatives and call for a general election by the end of 2023. While only Prime Minister Kishida knows what he is thinking regarding whether he will call a snap election, and if so when, here are some major factors that Prime Minister Kishida must take into consideration in determining his large political gambit.

Snap Election in Summer or Late 2023

There is much speculation that Prime Minister Kishida will call a snap election at the end of the current Diet session on June 21. The biggest reason for such speculation is the high approval rating of Prime Minister Kishida. As mentioned earlier, Prime Minister Kishida’s approval rating is currently very high and seems to ensure a victory for the LDP in a snap election, if it is called. A third consecutive victory in the national elections with a win in a snap election this summer will certainly bolster Prime Minister Kishida’s standing within the LDP for extension of the party leadership.

There is also speculation that Secretary-General Toshimitsu Motegi might want an early snap election this summer, as he is ambitious to succeed Prime Minister Kishida. An early snap election will give Secretary-General Motegi a legitimate and natural reason to move on from his current position and to begin preparing for a candidacy for the LDP presidency election next September. In addition, some speculate that powerful old guards, such as former Prime Minister Taro Aso and former Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, prefer a snap election sooner rather than later to preserve their seats.

There is consideration for the policy agenda, as well. Prime Minister Kishida might think that winning a snap election in the summer would give him political power to introduce a tax hike to ensure a large increase in the defense budget and social spending. In other words, Prime Minister Kishida could conclude that it would be very difficult, even untenable, to call a snap election next year after forcefully realizing an unpopular tax hike, particularly for fellow LDP lawmakers, whose voter support base is not so strong.

However, despite all these factors, there are also reasons why Prime Minister Kishida will not call a snap election at the end of the current Diet session on June 21. Prime Minister Kishida might think that it may be too early, more than a year before his term as the party president will be up. The LDP seems likely to win a snap election, but a mandate to govern, which he secures by winning, might not last long enough to give him a sure victory in the LDP presidential election next September.

There is also an issue of electoral cooperation with Komeito, the LDP’s coalition partner. Former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who has the strongest relationship with Komeito leadership, is said to not be enthusiastic about an early snap election, as the LDP and Komeito have not developed a joint strategy regarding a snap election. This is important, as rival party Nippon Ishin no Kai has greatly solidified its stronghold in Osaka, where the party won elections for the governor, the mayor, the prefectural assembly, and city assembly in the unified national election in April. Komeito is feeling a sense of danger, as Nippon Ishin no Kai has stopped cooperating with Komeito not only in Osaka but beyond, and Nippon Ishin no Kai is confident enough to compete without cooperation from Komeito in a snap election. Komeito, in turn, has decided to increase its own candidates in newly increased districts, such as five newly established districts in Tokyo and two newly established districts in Kanagawa, where the LDP intends to have its own candidates. This is a complicated situation, which will have repercussions on the overall relationship between the LDP and Komeito. Prime Minister Kishida may want to coordinate election strategies and solidify his overall relationship with Komeito before he calls a snap election.

Additionally, Prime Minister Kishida may not feel the necessity to urgently hold a snap election, as at any time the LDP would likely win a snap election, except in the Kansai area, where Nippon Ishin no Kai dominates. The opposition parties, such as the Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP), the Democratic Party for the People (DPP), and the Japanese Communist Party (JCC), will battle against each other and will not be able to unite against the LDP. Of course, nothing is certain in politics including the LDP’s relative advantage in a possible snap election. Prime Minister Kishida must have taken hard the disastrous defeats in the Adachi ward assembly election on May 21. While Komeito had all 13 candidates elected and Nippon Ishin no Kai had all three candidates elected, the LDP had seven out of its nineteen candidates shockingly defeated. Komeito became the largest party overtaking the LDP in the local assembly. The LDP leadership, including Prime Minister Kishida, now watches a by-election for the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly in Ota ward scheduled to be held on June 4 with a sense of urgency.

There is also an unexpected misstep by Prime Minister Kishida’s son, Shotaro Kishida, who was hired as the Prime Minister’s aide last October. It was an unpopular appointment from the beginning as it was seen as an act of nepotism on the part of Prime Minister Kishida to help his son gain valuable political experience. Unfortunately for Prime Minister Kishida, Shotaro Kishida displayed his lack of prudence by using official vehicles for shopping during his father’s official trip to France, the United Kingdom, and Canada in January.  In the last week of May, it was reported that Shotaro Kishida had a controversial year-end party with his relatives at the prime minister’s official residence last December. Images of Shotaro Kishida and relatives showed them having photos taken posing as cabinet members and mimicking press secretaries at places of symbolic importance at the residence. The report angered the public. As a result, the latest Nikkei polls showed a sudden five point decline in the cabinet approval from April to 47 percent.[5]  While it is not clear whether this problem lingers, it has certainly thrown a monkey wrench in Prime Minister Kishida’s political calculation.

As we have seen, there are several favorable factors for Prime Minister Kishida to call a snap election this summer.  At the same time, there are several unfavorable factors for Prime Minister Kishida not to call a snap election this summer. Prime Minister Kishida must weigh all these factors to decide on a snap election. My gut feeling at this time is that Prime Minister Kishida has not made up his mind yet on whether or not to have a snap election this summer, as he does not have compelling reasons of why he has to take a potentially risky road at this time.

Prime Minister Kishida’s calculation will change over time, particularly as he gets closer to the halfway point of the current term of the House of Representatives, providing Prime Minister Kishida maintains his current popularity and political momentum. It will be considered reasonable in Japan’s political culture to dissolve the House of Representatives after the members serve half of their term. In addition to all the favorable factors for an early snap election, Prime Minister Kishida would naturally like to hold off a snap election not too deep into next year as he will have a narrower window for maneuvering before the LDP presidency election. In the worst-case scenario, he might find himself in a position to compete with strong challengers or to be forced not to run, as happened to former Prime Minister Suga two years ago. It is possible that Prime Minister Kishida might be thinking about a snap election later this year as a result.

Other Factors to be Considered

There are some additional factors which might affect Prime Minister Kishida’s decision. It is technically correct to say that the prime minister can choose when to dissolve the House of Representatives and hold a general election. However, it is not always true that the prime minister can chose when to call a snap election, particularly when the prime minister’s faction is small and not powerful within the LDP. For example, in 1991 former Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu could not hold a snap election and resigned despite the fact that he had decided to call a snap election. It was because former Prime Minister Kaifu, who belonged to a minor Komoto faction, depended on support from a strong and dominant Takeshita faction. Former Prime Minister Kaifu had no choice but to resign when the Takeshita faction joined opposing factions within the LDP to oppose him.

Prime Minister Kishida’s faction with 45 members is the fourth largest faction within the LDP, behind the Abe faction with 100 members, Aso faction with 55 members, and Motegi faction with 54 members. It is crucially important for Prime Minister Kishida to maintain support of the bigger factions, which have more political clout within the LDP. However, the most powerful Abe faction has not nominated the head of its faction since former Prime Minister Abe was assassinated on July 8, 2022, as several leaders within the faction are vying for the faction leadership position. Former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, who will be 86 in July, currently leads the faction as de facto leader and wields influence over Prime Minister Kishida.  For example, Prime Minister Kishida agreed with all the appointment requests made by former Prime Minister Mori last August, namely, Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Yasutoshi Nishimura, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno, Chairperson LDP Policy Research Council Koichi Hagiuda, House of Councilors LDP Secretary-General Hiroshige Seko, and Chairperson LDP Diet Affairs Committee Tsuyoshi Takagi. While some leaders within the Abe faction would like to decide who will be the faction leader by the one-year anniversary of the assassination of former Prime Minister Abe in July, former Prime Minister Mori may not be interested in giving up his power anytime soon. While former Prime Minister Mori provides temporary stability and room to maneuver for Prime Minister Kishida, the future of the Abe faction is a big unknown factor for the political future of Prime Minister Kishida.

Another factor, which Prime Minister Kishida has been considering, is the plausible scenario where opposition parties put a no-confidence motion against his administration toward the end of the parliamentary session, which ends on June 21. The focal point of contention between the LDP and the opposition parties is a bill which would create a special pool of funds for a substantial increase in defense spending, which the CDP, Nippon Ishin no Kai, JCP, and DPP strongly oppose. Mr. Jun Azumi, Chairperson of the CDP Diet Affairs Committee, recently mentioned the possibility of submitting a no-confidence motion near the end of the current Diet session. If a no-confidence motion is submitted, it is likely to be denied by LDP lawmakers, who have a simple majority of the chamber. However, such a motion may provide Prime Minister Kishida with a reactionary impetus and/or legitimate reason to dissolve the House of Representatives and hold a general election.

A no-confidence motion is a double-edged sword for the opposition parties. While it might throw a monkey wrench in Prime Minister Kishida’s political strategy, it could seriously damage the opposition parties, as no opposition party, including quickly ascending Nippon Ishin no Kai, is prepared to put up a good fight in a snap election in July. Mr. Kenta Izumi, leader of the CDP, has already declared to secure 150 seats in the next House of Representatives election, yet the party has only 138 candidates to run for 289 single-seat constituencies. The situation is also dire for Nippon Ishin no Kai, which was established in 2016, as it has only about 70 candidates at this time.

A snap election in July induced by a no-confidence motion by the opposition parties, rather than Prime Minister Kishida’s own choosing of timing, is not desirable for Prime Minister Kishida. While the LDP will likely win a snap election in July, the LDP is also not really ready for a near term general election, especially as its partnering strategy with Komeito has not yet been solidified. Considering all major factors, which have been examined, a strong victory in a snap general election later in the year, combined with a reshuffling of the LDP’s leadership positions and cabinet appointments, would give Prime Minister Kishida the best chance to be re-elected as LDP president in September 2024.

[1] Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA’s data-based polls by NHK, ANA, Mainichi, Yomiuri, FNN, Kyodo, Nikkei and Asahi, May 2023, https://spfusa.org/source/japan-political-pulse/.

[2] Yomiuri Polls, May 20-21, 2023, https://www.yomiuri.co.jp/election/yoron-chosa/20230522-OYT1T50018/; FNN Polls, May 27-28, 2003, https://www.fnn.jp/articles/-/534628.

[3]  FNN Polls, May 27-28, 2003, https://www.fnn.jp/articles/-/534628.

[4]   Kyodo Polls, May 27 and 28, 2023, https://www.tokyo-np.co.jp/digican/shuin2021‌_yoron?‍sjkd_page=cont_‌KA613b0d7b468bd_KA6476c3a168916.

[5] Nikkei Polls, May 27-28, 2023, https://vdata.nikkei.com/newsgraphics/cabinet-approval-rating/.

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