Hop, Step, Jump Strategy
The central question in Japanese politics remains whether Prime Minister Kishida will call a snap election in the near future. Political observers believe that Prime Minister Kishida has a three-step snap election tactic to ensure his second term as the Liberal Democratic Party’s president next September.
The first step was to bolster his approval, partially by establishing himself as a major world leader. He established a strong relationship with President Biden with an upgraded defense commitment to strengthen the U.S.-Japan security alliance. In May, he held a successful G7 summit in Hiroshima, his hometown, which was punctuated by a surprise visit by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. He was invited to historic Camp David to elevate U.S.-Japan-Republic of Korea trilateral relations to a new strategic level. While the Japanese public viewed Prime Minister Kishida’s diplomatic efforts in a positive light, his approval rating has remained stagnant, as the Japanese public viewed troubles relating to the “My Number” national ID card system in a negative light.
The second step was to gain new momentum from the public and solidify support of the LDP factions by reshuffling Cabinet ministers and the LDP’s important leadership positions. While the media mostly predicted Prime Minister Kishida would make only a small number of changes in Cabinet posts to play it safe, he changed 13 out of 19 Cabinet positions on September 13. From the viewpoint of gaining new momentum from the public, he appointed five new women Cabinet ministers, which ties the largest number of women Cabinet ministers in Japan’s political history.
From the viewpoint of solidifying support of LDP factions, Prime Minister Kishida carefully distributed Cabinet positions among key factions to secure their support in his political maneuvering. He gave four Cabinet positions to both the Abe faction (100 members), which is the largest faction, and the Aso faction (55 members), which is led by Prime Minister Kishida’s closest ally, Vice President of the LDP Taro Aso. Prime Minister Kishida then gave three Cabinet positions to the Motegi faction (54 members), which is led by Secretary-General Toshimitsu Motegi, Prime Minister Kishida’s potential challenger for the party presidency. He gave two Cabinet positions each to his own faction (46 members) and the Nikai faction (41 members), which is led by Toshihiro Nikai, an old guard, and two non-faction affiliated members. He also gave one Cabinet position each to coalition partners Komeito and the Tanigaki group.
There were some surprises, too. The biggest surprise was relieving Minister of Foreign Affairs Yoshimasa Hayashi, as he played a central role in Prime Minister Kishida’s diplomatic efforts, including his recent visit with President Zelenskyy in Kyiv to start negotiations on security cooperation. The bottom line is that, at this time, it is not clear whether Cabinet reshuffling and changes in LDP leadership position will help improve Prime Minister Kishida’s approval rating.
The third step is Prime Minister Kishida’s economic stimulus package, which is scheduled to be compiled next month. He unveiled the five main pillars of his economic stimulus package on September 25: 1) battling inflation, 2) wage increase and revitalization of local economies, 3) investment stimulus for growth, 4) social innovation including conquering the declining population, and 5) peace of mind through strengthening infrastructure. Prime Minister Kishida would like to improve the economy, as it has been a hinderance to his effort to raise approval ratings. The Japanese public has long been dissatisfied with his management of economic affairs. However, there is always a time lag between introduction of an economic stimulus package and its policy effects being reflected in actual economic activities. His new economic stimulus package may achieve the above-mentioned five goals, but it is safe to say it will not be positively reflected in his approval ratings anytime soon.
When Prime Minister Kishida announced the five pillars of his economic stimulus package, he declared his “political priority is to create and execute bold economic actions, which will be supported with a budget and new leaders of the Cabinet.” He followed up his words by instructing his Cabinet on September 26 to formulate the economic stimulus package in the framework of the five pillars and to set up an extra budget to fund the package.
Prime Minister Kishida’s decision to move ahead with creating the economic stimulus package and to make it reality by setting up an accompanying budget is significant from the viewpoint of the political calendar this year. First, it will not be possible to call a snap election in October while the economic stimulus package is being created. As revitalizing the economy is central to Prime Minister Kishida’s political management, it is almost political suicide to call a snap election and seemingly abandon the economic stimulus package. Furthermore, it will take three to four weeks to write-up an extra budget plan to go with the package.
Prime Minister Kishida might decide to call a snap election after the economic stimulus package is introduced in early November. However, if Prime Minister Kishida is serious about his announcement of the economic stimulus package and accompanying extra budget, he should not call a snap election following compilation of the economic stimulus package without securing funding for it. He would be harshly criticized by voters and the opposition parties for maneuvering to protect his personal interest ahead of tackling the most pressing issue for most Japanese people.
This scenario leaves December as the most realistic opportunity for calling a snap election, even though this is a rare time for a snap election due to the annual budget preparation process in December. Furthermore, Prime Minister Kishida is scheduled to convene a special summit with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) from December 16 to 18.
Timing is everything in politics, particularly calling a snap election. Technically speaking, a prime minister can call a snap election any time a prime minister wishes. But in reality, several important factors must be aligned. First, the prime minister’s approval rating should be relatively high. Second, there should be a legitimate reason to hold a snap election. Third, there should be a reasonable prospect of winning it. Fourth, there should be support from key factions. And fifth, the political calendar should accommodate it. Prime Minister Kishida might have missed an opportunity earlier in the summer, had he wanted to hold a snap election before the end of the year.
Three-Headed Party Leadership
Prime Minister Kishida is president of the LDP; however, his faction is only the fourth largest faction within the LDP. As a result, he has been carefully maintaining cooperation with leaders of the second and the third largest faction, namely, LDP Vice President Taro Aso and LDP Secretary-General Toshimitsu Motegi. While Prime Minister Kishida made new Cabinet post appointments, he kept Vice President Aso and Secretary-General Motegi intact. This seems like a plan B defensive move by Prime Minister Kishida in case he may not be able to hold a snap election and thus faces challengers in the party presidency election in September 2024.
Vice President Aso does not have ambition to challenge Prime Minister Kishida, as he has served as Prime Minister and is 83 years old. Instead, he has become an advisor to and a supporter for Prime Minister Kishida as a grand statesman. LDP Vice President Aso also has a good working relationship with Secretary-General Motegi. In the meantime, Secretary-General Motegi is widely regarded as having ambition to become prime minister when the opportunity arises. While some in the Motegi faction wanted the leader to leave the position of Secretary-General and prepare to challenge Prime Minister Kishida in the party presidential election next September, he has accepted Prime Minister Kishida’s request to stay on. While there is widely accepted speculation that Secretary-General Motegi will not challenge Prime Minister Kishida as long as he remains in the current position, there is no guarantee. He might gain more political power and influence as essentially the second most powerful position within the LDP structure.
Interestingly, Prime Minister Kishida also appointed Hon. Yuko Obuchi, who is widely regarded as a potential challenger to Secretary-General Motegi in his faction, to head the LDP Election Strategy Headquarters. Since her late father used to be the leader of the former Motegi faction, many believe she could be the legitimate next leader of the faction. There is speculation that Prime Minister Kishida promoted Hon. Obuchi to an important party leadership position to prevent Secretary-General Motegi from acting solely for his own political ambition.
Additionally, Prime Minister Kishida is also shrewdly maintaining a good working relationship with former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, who has become a de facto caretaker of the Abe faction. There are several potential leaders in waiting, but the faction has failed to choose a single successor to the late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, more than a year after his assassination. As it was mentioned before, Prime Minister Kishida worked out a deal with former Prime Minister Mori to give four Cabinet positions to the faction, together with one of the three most important party leadership positions, chair of the Policy Research Council, to keep peace with the largest faction.
A three-headed leadership structure within the LDP might prevent an open revolt by Secretary-General Motegi and other potential challengers, such as Digital Minister Taro Kono, by maintaining cooperative relationships among the three factions led by the three leaders. This could be an alternative to a snap election for Kishida, as he aims to secure another term as LDP president in September 2024.
 Fumio Kishida, “Prime Minister Kishida press conference (岸田内閣総理大臣記者会見),” Prime Minister’s Office of Japan, September 13, 2023, https://www.kantei.go.jp/jp/101_kishida/statement/2023/0913kaiken.html.