Kishida may have hard time being reelected PM after by-elections

by Apr 30, 2024Featured Article, News

The Liberal Democratic Party’s defeat in a House of Representatives by-election in Shimane, dubbed as a “conservative kingdom,” is set to make it more difficult for Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to retain his leadership post.

Sunday’s outcome underscored that Kishida, called a lame duck by some critics, has already lost support from pro-LDP conservative voters, fanning fears that the party will suffer a stunning setback in the next general election with him at the helm.

Ruling lawmakers are expected to try to oust Kishida from power, which would hamper his attempt to be reelected as LDP leader around September after regaining his political clout by dissolving the lower house and winning the ensuing snap election, analysts said.

Plagued by a slush funds scandal since late last year, some LDP members may seek to topple Kishida to restore the party’s popularity before the upcoming lower house election, with Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa floated as a candidate to be his successor, they said.

The opposition bloc, meanwhile, has been accelerating demands for Kishida to dissolve the lower house as soon as possible following the by-elections amid mounting speculation that the LDP will lose many seats if a general election is held in the near future.

The three by-elections took place as the LDP has come under intense scrutiny after some of its factions neglected to report portions of their income from fundraising parties and maintained slush funds for years for their members.

As support for the LDP has been undermined by the scandal, it did not field candidates in the Tokyo No. 15 and Nagasaki No. 3 districts while putting emphasis on defending the seat in the Shimane No. 1 constituency in the western prefecture.

The leading opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, led by left-leaning lower house lawmaker Kenta Izumi, acquired all three seats by obtaining support from anti-LDP voters in Sunday’s by-elections.

Nobuyuki Baba, the leader of the nation’s second-largest opposition Japan Innovation Party, told reporters that Kishida should “seek a popular mandate immediately as the LDP’s three losses in the by-elections reflected the will of the people.”

Before the by-elections, Kishida, who took office in October 2021, was believed to have been exploring the possibility of dissolving the lower house by the end of the ongoing parliamentary session through June ahead of the LDP presidential race in the fall.

In early April, Kishida apparently hoped for a turnaround in his popularity as he became Japan’s first prime minister to visit the United States as a state guest since 2015, when former premier Shinzo Abe, who was fatally shot during an election campaign in 2022, received the same honor.

Kishida’s address to the U.S. Congress received standing ovations, but public reaction was tepid at home. After his U.S. tour, approval ratings for his Cabinet have stayed below 30 percent, widely seen as the “danger level” for a government.

Shinichi Nishikawa, a political science professor at Meiji University, said the outlook for the Kishida administration is gloomy as the LDP, which has been in power for most of the period since its formation in 1955, lost even in Shimane.

If Kishida decides to dissolve the lower house and call a general election before fully addressing public distrust in politics triggered by the scandal, many LDP lawmakers would inevitably lose their seats in the Diet, according to political experts.

With the aim of staving off the potential damage in the next lower house election, more LDP members are likely to become eager to remove Kishida and find a new face to present a fresh image for the ruling party, they added.

In addition to Kamikawa, who became foreign minister in September 2023, Secretary General Toshimitsu Motegi, the LDP’s No. 2 figure following Kishida, is regarded as one of the candidates for party leader and prime minister.

But Motegi has been less popular than other possible candidates, such as former LDP Secretary General Shigeru Ishiba, digital minister Taro Kono and former Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi, one of former premier Junichiro Koizumi’s sons, the experts said.

Given the low profile of Motegi, a veteran lawmaker elected to parliament the same year as Kishida in 1993, Kamikawa would be more suitable to alter the political atmosphere as the LDP president and Japan’s first female prime minister, they said.

The 71-year-old graduate of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government is known for her high practical capability, previously serving as justice minister. She is also not tainted by the latest political funds scandal.

While it is unclear what kind of policies Kamikawa looks to promote as the country’s leader, Masahiro Iwasaki, a political science professor at Nihon University, said the LDP would choose a lawmaker who can weather the next snap election with a “clean image.”

Kishida has so far made efforts to bolster his sluggish support by pitching his diplomatic achievements, including a surprise visit to Ukraine in March 2023 and successfully hosting the Group of Seven summit in his home constituency of Hiroshima in May of that year.

After the G7 summit, Kishida’s approval ratings temporarily rebounded, but they eventually faced another downward trend due in part to the emergence of inappropriate photographs taken during a family function at the prime minister’s official residence.

Sources familiar with Kishida’s thinking said that, due to his current low popularity, he would likely be unable to dissolve the lower house based on common political wisdom. However, they added that it is impossible to predict what steps he will take to maintain his position as prime minister.

In January, Kishida abruptly announced that he would disband his faction over the slush funds scandal, with the decision irritating LDP lawmakers who were close to Abe and the party’s vice president, Taro Aso, a former prime minister who has backed the premier.

“To maintain his position of prime minister, Kishida appears willing to do whatever he can,” one of the sources said. “Concerns are growing among LDP lawmakers that he might dissolve the lower house soon before a prominent successor crops up.”

(Tomoyuki Tachikawa contributed to this story.)