Kishida’s Paradox: Victory Is Doubtful, but No Challengers Emerge

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Fumio Kishida, center, praises good fight with then Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, second from left, and other candidates after Kishida’s win in the LDP presidential election in September 2021.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has claimed that he surpasses other politicians in his “ability to listen.” But recently, he is seen as a politician who surpasses others in his “ability to be obtuse,” which means he doesn’t care much about other people’s voices and seems to never give up. This makes Japan’s political future more and more unpredictable.

The approval rating of the Kishida Cabinet was 26% in the latest Yomiuri Shimbun poll, conducted in May, falling below 30% for the seventh month in a row. Most Diet members in the Liberal Democratic Party feel such ratings are not only too low for the next general election but also too low for Kishida to be reelected in the LDP presidential election in September.

Utter defeat in April by-elections followed by a loss in the Shizuoka gubernatorial election showed a strong headwind is blowing against the LDP. Political pundits remember then Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s resignation in 2021. In the spring, the LDP lost in by-elections for the House of Representatives in Hokkaido and for the House of Councillors in Nagano and Hiroshima prefectures. Those results undermined Suga’s political momentum. Then another defeat accelerated that trend. In August, the LDP lost the mayoral election in Yokohama, which included Suga’s own constituency. Finally, he gave up on running for reelection as LDP president.

In Nagatacho, the area of Tokyo known as Japan’s political center, it is said that the headwind blowing against the LDP today is stronger than in 2021. There had been speculation that Kishida might dissolve the lower house for a general election before the current ordinary Diet session ends on June 23, as winning a general election seemed to be the only way for Kishida to secure his reelection in the LDP presidential contest in September. However, there are growing views that it has become difficult for him to dissolve the Diet after a four-election losing streak. Even one of Kishida’s aides admitted that “dissolving the lower house in the near future will be political suicide.”

So most LDP Diet members anticipate that Kishida will likely give up on being reelected, as Suga did. However, Kishida’s aides — and obviously the prime minister himself — have a different view. They believe that he will be able to be reelected within the party without first winning a general election.

They base their argument on history. Looking back at past LDP presidential elections, three of the four most recent incumbent prime ministers who ran for reelection as party president — Keizo Obuchi, Junichiro Koizumi and Shinzo Abe — won, and only Takeo Fukuda was defeated. Keeping this fact in mind, one LDP executive said: “An incumbent prime minister is dominant. Even though Kishida is unpopular, who would replace him?”

In fact, Nagatacho looks strangely calm. No rival of Kishida has been able to find a path toward the LDP presidency, and no one has publicly asked him to step down. Potential rivals fear that if they face off against the incumbent prime minister and lose, it would spell their political doom. Koichi Kato, who was beaten by then Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi in 1999, is the best-known cautionary tale. Kato was a rising political star at that time and was expected to become prime minister in the near future. However, after the 1999 LDP election, he became an object of scorn and tumbled down the rankings of potential LDP leaders. Even his faction split up.

To avoid such a political disaster, Kishida’s rivals are obliged to take a “wait and see” position, hoping that Kishida will abandon his reelection bid even though he appears unconcerned about the critical voices of voters against him.

But a senior official in the Prime Minister’s Office denies speculation that Kishida might bow out, saying: “If there is someone who expects Kishida will step down before the LDP presidential election, he or she doesn’t know Kishida’s obtuseness, or in other words impudence. I have no doubt he will run.” In short, Kishida is not yet a lame duck.

You may want to ask how likely it is that Kishida will survive the political battle this fall. It’s too early to offer a specific forecast, but it’s too optimistic of Kishida and his aides to anticipate his reelection without a considerable storm as they continue business as usual.

When you look back at the history of LDP presidential elections, you cannot ignore the fact that three incumbent prime ministers — Toshiki Kaifu, Zenko Suzuki and Suga — were forced to step down because of unpopularity or political strife.

Beyond the political strife within the LDP, Kishida will have to listen to the voice of coalition partner Komeito. Komeito Secretary General Keiichi Ishii said on a TV program, “An autumn [general] election after the LDP presidential election is the most likely scenario.” Although he never mentioned Kishida’s future, it is a widely held view in Nagatacho that Komeito is hoping to meet the next general election with a new prime minister.

I mentioned that Nagatacho is strangely calm. But it could be the calm before the storm.

Political Pulse appears every Saturday.

Satoshi Ogawa

Satoshi Ogawa is the editor of the Political News Department of The Yomiuri Shimbun.