Can Kishida turn expectations into belief?

REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
Lawmakers applaud Japan’s newly-elected Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at the Lower House of Parliament in Tokyo, Japan October 4, 2021.

With just over two weeks remaining until the end of the current four-year terms of House of Representatives members, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is in an unprecedented situation at the start of his administration.

Will political stability be restored or will Japan return to an era of revolving-door administrations?

Kishida has the challenge of changing the public’s hopes into belief, even if only slightly, with little time to spare before the general election.

New prime ministers can usually expect to enjoy a honeymoon period of up to six months at most, during which the public, buoyed by expectations, is typically generous with their appraisals.

There have been five instances in which new Liberal Democratic Party presidents have faced national elections in their first six months as prime minister.

Three were held after the LDP presidential election was contested by three or four candidates: the 1960 lower house election during the administration of Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda; the 1972 lower house election under Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka and; and the 2001 House of Councillors election under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

The LDP enjoyed landslide victories under Ikeda and Koizumi, while the party lost 26 seats in the election under Tanaka.

On the two other occasions, new LDP presidents were chosen by discussions, not party elections, and the LDP lost a large number of seats in lawmaker elections following their appointment. The LDP lost in the 1989 upper house election during the administration of Prime Minister Sosuke Uno and the 2000 lower house election under Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori.

The upcoming lower house poll will be the sixth national election to be held during a leader’s honeymoon period.

The general elections under Ikeda, Tanaka and Koizumi took place after LDP presidential polls that were contested by four candidates, as was the case in the latest presidential race.

Kishida replaces Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who served as chief cabinet secretary under the administration of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which lasted for nearly nine years. Kishida, who held the post of foreign minister for a long time under the Abe administration and also served as the LDP’s policy chief, is in a similar situation to that of Tanaka, who served in key posts under his predecessor Eisaku Sato, whose administration lasted for about eight years.

Because of his associations with the long-term administration, it will not be easy for Kishida to convince the public regarding policy reforms.

To some extent, the new Cabinet and Kishida’s demeanor suggest he has reflected on the negative aspects associated with a concentration of power in the Prime Minister’s Office. However, he must communicate clearly what he will inherit from the previous administrations and what he will change. Needless to say, it is also important to talk about future prospects.

There will be an upper house election less than a year after the upcoming lower house election. The public’s support will likely swing depending on the coronavirus pandemic situation. If expectations do not change to belief, the public’s distrust in politics will become even stronger.

However, hasty implementation of reforms may lead to political turbulence. Kishida will have to win the understanding and support of as many people as possible. Turning his self-proclaimed “power of listening” into “power of communicating” will be key.