By-Election Shock / Japan PM Kishida Questioned as ‘Face of Election’; Diet Dissolution in June Still Being Considered

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida waves as he visits Matsue, Shimane Prefecture, to make a speech in support of a Liberal Democratic Party candidate for the Shimane Constituency No. 1 on Saturday.

Losing all three seats on offer in Sunday’s House of Representatives by-elections dealt a serious blow to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. This is the first installment in a series exploring issues such as the dissolution of the lower house, possible candidates to replace Kishida and moves surrounding the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and other parties.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who also serves as LDP president, expressed a sense of urgency to his aides after the defeats, which included two seats where the party did not even field candidates.

“If we hold the lower house election anytime soon, the administration may be replaced,” Kishida, 66, reportedly said, indicating his concerns over a possible shift in political power away from the LDP.

The LDP fielded a candidate in Shimane Constituency No.1, part of a “conservative kingdom” that the party has long considered its stronghold. The complete defeat of the LDP by a margin of more than 20,000 votes proves that an unfavorable wind is blowing against the party over its factions’ violations of the Political Funds Control Law.

Kishida told one of his Cabinet members late last year about his outlook for 2024, saying, “There will be a political event.”

The prime minister had in mind the end of the ordinary Diet session in June for the dissolution of the lower house of the Diet.

If the party were to win the lower house election in the summer, it would set the stage for him to win the LDP presidential race to be held by September without a hitch.

While Kishida is very concerned about the results of the by-election, he has told his aides that he has yet to decide whether or not to dissolve the Diet. He still wants to explore the possibility of a June dissolution by trying to buoy up the present administration.

Yet, despite Kishida’s intentions, a situation has been created in the ruling parties in which he cannot freely exercise his right to dissolve the government. There is a growing view that the LDP would not be able to contend in the election with Kishida at the helm of the party.

On Saturday afternoon, a day before the by-elections, participants sitting in a circle were filled with a tense atmosphere at a LDP political reform dialogue held in Okayama.

“The top leader must step down,” one member of the LDP Okayama prefectural chapter said, demanding Kishida to step down.

It was in response to Kisaburo Tokai, the chairperson of the LDP’s Policy Research Council, asking the participants for their opinions about how the party should rebuild itself given the recent political funds scandal involving LDP factions.

In the face of LDP’s by-election defeats, middle ranking and young LDP lawmakers who do not have a strong campaign base are desperate. “If the lower house is dissolved now, I will lose the election,” one such lawmaker said.

“As long as Kishida is in power, I do not think the approval rating will increase no matter what is done,” one of the top executives of LDP said.

Sense of unease

As Kishida’s leadership deteriorates, top party executives are feeling uneasy.

During the by-election campaigns, there was a rumor that LDP Secretary General Toshimitsu Motegi, who maintains a certain distance from Kishida, would announce his resignation from the position after the vote counting Sunday night. The rumor came up because some people believed Motegi might start to prepare for running in the next LDP presidential election under the guise of taking responsibility for the results of the by-elections.

Motegi, together with Yuko Obuchi, who heads the party’s campaign headquarters, instead said to reporters, “We will work to restore trust in the party.” He did not mention a possible resignation.

However, an LDP member who once served as a Cabinet minister said, “An anti-Kishida movement has not surfaced only due to a sense of hopelessness that, no matter who is in charge, the situation will remain tough for now.”

Awkward conversations

LDP’s coalition partner Komeito has started to maintain a distance from Kishida.

Kishida met with Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi at the Prime Minister’s Office at noon on April 15, a day before the start of the official campaigning for the three by-elections. The awkward conversations they had represented the difficult relationship between the two parties.

“We have not received a request for recommendation from your party. What do you make of it?” Yamaguchi asked Kishida. This was because, while a written request to recommend an LDP candidate for the lower house in Shimane Constituency No. 1 by-election was submitted to Komeito, an official request from Motegi was not received.

Kishida lowered his head and asked for support, saying, “Please.”

Yamaguchi also criticized the fact that the LDP had not presented its own draft bill to revise the Political Funds Control Law, saying, “You need to hurry up, or people won’t stand it.”

Komeito decided to give its recommendation to the LDP candidate in the afternoon of April 15.

Some Komeito members say that, if Kishida decides to dissolve the lower house in the near future, LDP candidates who were subject to punishment by their party in relation to the political funds scandal should not receive recommendations from Komeito.

“This is an option worth consideration because it might help us avoid being lumped with the LDP,” a Komeito source said. “We also could use the option as a trump card to stop an early dissolution of the lower house.”

Komeito Secretary General Keiichi Ishii mentioned a possible general election on a TV program. “An autumn election after the LDP presidential election is the most likely scenario,” he said. While this statement caused some ripples, a Komeito member said, “He represented our honest opinion that it is necessary to change the prime minister.”

Limited options

Kishida is well aware of the harsh atmosphere within the ruling parties, but he also said to his close aides, “No one can do the prime minister’s job unless they are thick-skinned.”

However, even if Kishida considers dissolving the lower house despite these cautious views, the schedule will be tight as there are many upcoming diplomatic events in June and July, including the Group of Seven summit in Italy.

“An increasing number of people are now calling for delaying the election. Amid this and other circumstances, the opportunities to dissolve the lower house before the LDP presidential election are now quite limited,” a senior LDP official said.