Tokyo’s Uncertain Political Environment

Dr. Satohiro Akimoto
Chairman and President of Sasakawa USA

Publications Tokyo’s Uncertain Political Environment

I spent the last week of May in Tokyo with a group of the U.S. Congressional chiefs-of-staff organized by FMC, our partnering organization. During my spare time, I met several influential Diet politicians and well-informed political analysts to get a feel for the political pulse in Tokyo. Usually, they present a clear analysis of the current political landscape and provide insightful predictions on future political directions. However, this time, they were much less articulate than in the past and even seemed hesitant in offering not only predictions, but even speculations as to what might take place in Japan’s politics in the near future.

What looms large in Japan is the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) presidency election scheduled in September. There is no doubt that Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has no intention to leave the prime minister’s office anytime soon. On April 23, he became the eighth longest serving prime minister in Japan, with 933 days in service. He looks fully committed to continuing on as prime minister. If Prime Minister Kishida can accomplish this, he could overtake former Prime Minister Shinsuke Kishi, who served in office for 1,241 days, as the seventh longest serving prime minister in Japan.

On May 19, 2024, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida visited Yamagata Prefecture and held a “Political Reform Roundtable Dialogue.” (Photo via Liberal Democratic Party of Japan)

Prime Minister Kishida’s political future, however, seems precarious and unclear. He seems to have found himself in the deepest trouble ever since he assumed office in October 2021. Due to the LDP’s slush fund scandal, his approval ratings have been depressed at under 30 percent, which is generally regarded as the “danger zone” for a prime minister’s survival. His unpopularity is reflected in the LDP’s recent election losses in three by-elections in Tokyo, Shimane, and Nagasaki on April 28, and a gubernatorial election in Shizuoka on May 26. While his approval ratings went up several percentage points in some polls in May after his successful April visit to Washington, the ratings went down again in June [1] to settle in the mid to low 20 percent range. Under these harsh circumstances, all eyes are on Prime Minister Kishida as to what he will do to extend his party presidency and, thus, continue to serve as prime minister.

The question about the future of Japanese politics has long been about when Prime Minister Kishida would call a snap election. However, the possibility of Prime Minister Kishida calling a snap election before the closing of the current ordinary Diet session on June 23, seems to have been significantly diminished following the series of lackluster losses in the three by-elections on April 28, the Shizuoka gubernatorial election on May 26, and the mayoral election in Tokyo’s Minato Ward on June 2. It is expected that the opposition parties will submit a no-confidence motion against the Kishida Cabinet at the end of the current Congressional session. Prime Minister Kishida theoretically can call a snap election following the opposition parties’ no-confidence motion in June or July.

That being said, LDP lawmakers are deeply concerned that the party might lose political control if Prime Minister Kishida calls a snap election as Japanese citizens are deeply dissatisfied with the party. In fact, in JNN polls, 42 percent of respondents hope for political leadership change from the current LDP-Komeito coalition government, while only 32 percent of respondents hope for continuation of the LDP-Komeito coalition government. Under such circumstances, calling a snap election does not seem like a viable option for Prime Minister Kishida. Indeed, he seemed to have given up on solidifying his standing within the party by calling a snap election, when he said to reporters on June 4, “I am focused on political reform and other imminent challenges,” and “I am solely thinking about achieving those goals.”

A meeting of the Party General Affairs Committee and the Working Group on Political Funds Law Development on May 16, 2024, where Working Group Chairman Keisuke Suzuki explained the process for drafting the article. (Photo via the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan)

Looking back, Prime Minister Kishida himself has taken the lead to implement political reform to regain public support. Immediately following his return from Brazil on May 6, he summoned Mr. Keisuke Suzuki and Mr. Keitaro Ohno, key Lower House members of the LDP Special Committee on the Political Reform Working Group, to the Prime Minister’s residence to move forward with a bill to reform rules on political party funds.

It was noteworthy that Prime Minister Kishida bypassed top LDP officials, such as Mr. Toshimitsu Motegi, secretary-general of the party. Prime Minister Kishida is widely viewed to have lost trust in Secretary-General Motegi, who has not made progress on a political reform bill in six months after the slush fund scandal broke. Instead, Secretary-General Motegi has reportedly been busy trying to gain support of lawmakers who have lost factional bases, in a possible run for the LDP party presidency.

On June 6, the LDP finally passed a bill to revise the Political Fund Regulation Law cleared by the Lower House after their original bill was rejected, even by coalition partner Komeito, which demanded stricter regulations. The LDP secured the support of Komeito and some opposition parties, such as Nippon Ishin no Kai, by acceding to their demands for a more stringent disclosure threshold on purchases of fundraising party tickets and policy activity expenses received from political parties. A small political party, Free Education for All, led by former leader of the Democratic Party of Japan, Mr. Seiji Maehara, also voted for the bill. The LDP rejected banning all political donations from corporations and abolishing policy activity expenses from political parties that the Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP), the Democratic Progressive party (DPP) and the Japan Communist Party (JCP) had demanded.

At a plenary session on June 6, 2024, the House of Representatives passed the bill to amend the Political Funds Control Law, which was submitted by the LDP, and sent to the House of Councillors. (Photo via the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan)

The bill to revise the Political Fund Regulation Law was immediately sent to the Upper House for deliberations and it is expected to be enacted by the end of the current ordinary Diet session, which ends on June 23. The LDP, together with Komeito, Nippon Ishin no Kai, and Free Education for All jointly hold a majority of seats in the Upper House.

However, it is not certain whether the revised bill will help Prime Minister Kishida solidify his position within the LDP for the party presidency election. Also, it is not clear whether passage of the bill will lift Prime Minister Kishida’s approval rating by pacifying the anger of Japanese citizens. Additionally, it is also not clear whether passage of the bill will be received positively by LDP lawmakers. Several LDP lawmakers told me that many LDP lawmakers, particularly former Abe faction members who are not close allies of Prime Minister Kishida, were upset with him as he conceded too much in hopes for short-term political gains. A former Abe faction lawmaker said that Prime Minister Kishida is destroying the institutional foundation of the party in a short period of time.

One tactic Prime Minister Kishida might consider is reshuffling cabinet posts and the party’s top leadership positions. A term for the LDP top leadership positions is for one year, which can be extended for three terms. LDP Vice President Taro Aso’s term will be up on September 30, and Secretary-General Motegi’s term will be up on November 3. Since it is inevitable to appoint new lawmakers to these positions, Prime Minister Kishida might bring the schedule forward to reshuffle cabinet positions and appoint new party leadership positions, though this is pure speculation.

As we have seen, the current political situation in Tokyo is very unclear. Prime Minister Kishida might not be able to call a snap election due to his unpopularity with voters and lack of support from fellow LDP lawmakers before the party presidency election in September. Former Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda is the only LDP prime minister who lost a party presidency election as a sitting prime minister. That was in 1978. While dissatisfaction for Prime Minister Kishida is apparently strong, he might be able to muddle through and continue on as prime minister past September, as there is a lack of strong challengers within the party and the opposition parties remain weak.

[1] The JNN polls in May showed the biggest jump in Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s approval ratings from April, which went up 7.0 percentage points to 29.8 percent. However, the ratings did not seem to have sustaining power and went down 4.7 percentage points in June to 25.1 percent.

2024 Sasakawa USA | Privacy Policy | Sitemap

Custom WordPress Design, Development & Digital Marketing by time4design