Kishida Losing Power to Call Snap Election as Political Decisions Backfire

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida meets with reporters at the Prime Minister’s Office on the morning of Nov. 9.

“I sense weakness in your decisions and your words.”

So said Hiroshige Seko, secretary general for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in the upper house, to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in a question-and-answer session in the Diet on Oct. 25. It is unusual for a senior LDP leader to openly criticize the prime minister during a Diet debate. Seko took issue with Kishida’s proposal to cut income taxes and provide benefits to low-income earners under the slogan of “returning increased tax revenues,” which was poorly received by the public and even within the LDP.

“The public did not understand at all what you were trying to do in response to the high prices of commodities,” Seko also said. Kishida could only smile wryly as he listened to Seko’s barrage of bitter words.

In September, Kishida reshuffled his Cabinet and the leadership of the LDP, and on Nov. 2, he decided on economic measures, including a crucial tax cut package. However, the Cabinet’s approval rating has remained stagnant in the 20% to 30% range in opinion polls conducted by the media.

Kishida’s personnel appointments have created further headwinds, with Taro Yamada, parliamentary vice minister of education, culture, sports, science and technology, quitting over an affair, and Mito Kakizawa, senior vice minister of justice, resigning over his involvement in a case involving violations of the Public Offices Election Law. On Nov. 13, Kanda Kenji, vice minister of finance, was also ousted over the issue of tax delinquency.

In light of these difficult circumstances, Kishida was forced to announce on Nov. 9 that he would not dissolve the House of Representatives by the end of this year. “I will first work on economic measures and on issues that cannot be postponed, one by one,” Kishida told reporters at the prime minister’s office.

Within the government and the LDP, Kishida has become subject to much harsher scrutiny. “Everything is hard to understand. I have a feeling that his approval rating will not go up unless he clearly shows how he will change people’s lives and society,” Ryota Takeda, former LDP minister of internal affairs and communications, said about Kishida’s policies on a TV program on Nov. 9.

A senior government official in charge of national security said: “The current difficult situation looks a little like the end of the first Abe administration and of the Aso administration. Everything Kishida does seems to be backfiring.” Nobuyuki Baba, leader of Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party) said sarcastically to his allies, “Even if a child catches a cold, parents tend to feel that it’s Kishida’s fault.”

Surprisingly, Kishida and his aides are not taking the situation too seriously, saying it’s still early days.

It’s true that Kishida previously achieved a significant recovery in his approval rating. Last November, according to a Yomiuri Shimbun survey, the Cabinet’s approval rating dropped to 36% in the wake of the problems with the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification and other issues. However, after Kishida’s sudden visit to Ukraine in March and the G7 summit in Hiroshima in May this year, the approval rating returned to 56%, the level at which the Cabinet was formed.

For the first time in a year Kishida had a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Thursday, in conjunction with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco. A special summit between Japan and member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations will be held in Tokyo in December. His diplomatic schedule is packed, with an expected visit to Brazil, Chile and other South American countries at the beginning of 2024.

Kishida’s bullishness is probably largely to the fact that, unless he dissolves the lower house, there will be no major national elections until the upper house election in the summer of 2025. Furthermore, the LDP’s Kishida faction led by the prime minister is only the fourth-largest faction within the party, but it has the solid support of the major factions of Abe, Aso, and Motegi, and there are currently no strong potential candidates for the LDP presidency.

If the decline in support continues, however Kishida will not be able to dissolve the lower house even if he wants to, and he may be asked to be step down before the presidential election. The general view is that the upcoming diplomatic schedule will not have enough impact to buoy the administration. Kishida and his colleagues are pinning their hopes on price hikes calming down next spring and the implementation of tax cuts in June to bring deflation to an end, but the outlook for the international economy is uncertain.

One former LDP prime minister is concerned about the future of Kishida’s Cabinet, based on his own experiences. “If you think you can still rebuild, there may be more pitfalls ahead,” the former prime minister said.

Kishida was able to regain his approval rating from the end of last year largely because he revised Japan’s National Security Strategy to allow the possession of missiles for “counterattack capabilities” and has shifted energy policy by allowing the construction of new nuclear power plants. Kishida‘s bold approach to long-standing issues likely won the support of the public.

There is now a policy theme that Kishida should give highest priority to realizing a framework known as active cyber defense (ACD), which involves detecting signs of cyber-attacks and identifying the sources of such attacks. In the United States and other countries with advanced cyber countermeasures, the standard response to cyber-attacks is to counterattack the adversary’s server. Realization of ACD is specified in the National Security Strategy.

The hurdles to achieving active cyber defense in Japan are high. The Constitution’s guarantee against violating “the secrecy of any means of communication” has been interpreted to apply to the internet as well. To introduce ACD, the government needs to adjust the necessary legislation, including the Telecommunications Business Law, the Unauthorized Computer Access Prohibition Law and the Penal Code, while taking into consideration the rights of the people.

Initially, next year’s ordinary Diet session was eyed for the revision of related laws, but there is a growing push within the Prime Minister’s Office to postpone the submission of the bill on the grounds that opposition parties and others are expected to oppose it and it will deprive the administration of its strength.

As cyber-attack methods become more sophisticated and diverse, the international community fears that Japan’s cyber defense is vulnerable. If Kishida advocates strengthening cyber measures, he will surely gain support from the LDP’s supporters. To appeal to conservative voters, Kishida has expressed his willingness to consider constitutional reform and issues including measures to ensure a stable Imperial succession. But preparing for cyber-attacks is a more pressing issue than these.

Kishida is now at a critical juncture as to whether he can reverse his fortunes a second time.

Political Pulse appears every Saturday.

Shuhei Kuromi

Shuhei Kuromi is a deputy editor in the Political News Department of The Yomiuri Shimbun.