By-Election Shock / Moves to Replace Japan PM Kishida Gain Momentum Amid Low Ratings; LDP Heavyweights Eye Candidates for Party Presidency

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Clockwise from upper left: Taro Aso, Toshimitsu Motegi, Taro Kono, Shigeru Ishiba, and Shinjiro Koizumi

This is the second installment in a series exploring issues surrounding Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party after it was defeated in Sunday’s House of Representatives by-elections.


Moves to replace Prime Minister Fumio Kishida have been gathering momentum behind the scenes, in response to the low approval ratings of the current administration.

On the night of March 12, LDP Secretary General Toshimitsu Motegi left his quarters and went to another room in the apartment building for lower house Diet members in Tokyo’s Akasaka district.

A drinking session was being held there by about five mid-ranking and young lawmakers of the LDP’s Abe faction. The party’s largest, this faction was led at one point by former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is now deceased.

“I’m sorry to crash the party,” Motegi said as he entered the room with non-alcoholic beer and whisky in his hands. The lawmakers expressed their concern over a possible lower house election, but Motegi told them cheerfully, “I won’t let [the prime minister] dissolve [the lower house] in June.”

Motegi is seeking opportunities to run for LDP president while supporting Kishida, who is the current party chief. Recently, Motegi has often dined with Abe faction lawmakers, and he has established a parliamentary group to encourage “green transformation,” with himself as a special adviser.

Faction shaken

Motegi’s basic strategy is based on close cooperation with LDP Vice President Taro Aso.

Aso also supports Motegi. On April 23, before meeting with former U.S. President Donald Trump in New York, Aso said to Motegi over the phone that he would urge Trump to remember Motegi as an important figure in Japan.

However, Motegi’s foundation has been shaken. A number of lawmakers have left the faction Motegi leads, and he has transformed it into a loose group to study policies. However, its unity has weakened as former Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, a senior member of the Motegi faction, told people around him, “All the members are already factionless.”

Some LDP lawmakers cynically say that Motegi contacting Abe faction members demonstrates his fear that he cannot pull together his own faction.

Suicidal action

Former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and former LDP Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai have accepted their status as non-mainstream under the Kishida administration. There is a strong view within the LDP that these two heavyweights will form an opposition bloc against Kishida in the next party presidential election.

On the night of April 21, during the campaigns for three lower house by-elections, Suga met at a Japanese-style restaurant in Tokyo with former Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Ryota Takeda, former LDP Acting Secretary General Motoo Hayashi — both of whom are Nikai faction members — as well as Hiroshi Moriyama, chair of the LDP General Council, who has continued to communicate well with Suga.

As they downed one piece of tempura after another, they exchanged opinions, including the feeling that to dissolve the lower house at an early stage would be political suicide.

Predicting that the LDP will face a difficult battle in the next lower house election, Suga has reportedly told people around him that it would be better to have a person who can minimize the LDP’s election losses as party president.

Suga has in mind three possibilities — former Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi, who has strong name recognition; Shigeru Ishiba, a former LDP secretary general; and Taro Kono, minister in charge of digital affairs.

Suga has particularly high hopes for Koizumi. Together with Suga, Koizumi has proclaimed the need to dissolve factions. They are also taking concerted action to introduce ride-sharing services, in which people use their personal cars to offer paid rides.

In February, Ishiba resumed the activities of a study group led by himself to prepare for the next party presidential election. To reward Nikai for his services — Nikai had expressed his intention not to run in the next lower house election over his faction’s alleged violation of the Political Funds Control Law — Ishiba had dinner with Nikai, Takeda and Hayashi to strengthen their relationship.

Amid moves to dissolve factions, it is difficult for Kono, who remains in the Aso faction, to work closely with Suga. Some say the distance between the two is widening.

Kishida, opponents stuck

In the wake of the LDP’s defeat in the three lower house by-elections, speculation is rife within the LDP that Motegi, Suga and others will begin a movement to oppose Kishida.

However, there is a strong public backlash against the LDP, and they may be forced to refrain from taking drastic action because an internal LDP feud could invite even more criticism.

One of the post-Kishida candidates told people around him that he would wait until after the closing of the ordinary Diet session to take significant steps to oppose Kishida.

Kishida also cannot make significant moves. The prime minister has sought to contain his rivals by appointing to his Cabinet Kono and Sanae Takaichi, minister in charge of economic security, both of whom ran against Kishida in the 2021 party presidential election.

This time as well, speculation was rife within the LDP that Kishida planned to discard Motegi through a Cabinet reshuffle or changes in the party key posts, and instead appoint Koizumi and Ishiba to raise the standing of his Cabinet.

However, there is a strong sense of caution among people around Kishida. One said that if Koizumi and Ishida refused the appointments, the Kishida administration would not survive.