Uniting Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party a tricky matter for prime minister Kishida

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Fumio Kishida waves to Liberal Democratic Party members after being elected party president in September 2021.

It has now been 10 years since the Liberal Democratic Party won the general election in December 2012, ensuring its return to power.

The LDP was united around former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who wrested power back from the then Democratic Party of Japan, when he held sway over the party during his long administration. Today, however, things are different.

While preserving the foundation inherited from Abe, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is trying to correct the party’s course in his own way. Unlike the days of Abe’s dominance, however, uniting the party is much more difficult for Kishida.

Inherited tasks

On Friday night, Kishida attended a party to mark the 10th anniversary of the LDP’s comeback at a hotel in Tokyo. It was held by a group of LDP members who lost in the 2009 House of Representatives election that swept the LDP out of power; they formed the group in hopes of putting the party back in control.

“Thanks to all of you, I’ll be able to finish the year. I’ll continue to do my best,” Kishida said with a smile. He was treated to sukiyaki and sake produced in Fukushima Prefecture, and praised by other attendees for his recent efforts.

On the day, the Kishida Cabinet approved three key documents, including the National Security Strategy, which stipulates Japan’s possession of “counterattack capabilities.”

Japan’s security policy saw great changes under the Abe administration with such measures as the enactment of security legislation and permitting the limited exercise of the right of collective self-defense. For Kishida, allowing the possession of counterattack capabilities had been an unfulfilled goal left to him by Abe.

“It was a big turning point for us. We will tighten our focus,” the prime minister reportedly said to people around him after a press conference on Friday.

Open criticism

When tax hikes were put on the agenda to secure financial resources to strengthen Japan’s defense, some in the party and even the Cabinet openly criticized Kishida. At a meeting of party members opposed to the tax hikes, one person even referred to no-confidence motions against the Cabinet. Economic security minister Sanae Takaichi said she would not care if she was dismissed for expressing a cautious stance on the hikes.

“Things have changed from the Abe administration, which controlled the party,” a senior party official said with a sigh.

Under Abe, only a few lawmakers openly opposed the prime minister’s policies, and those who did so were often accused of betrayal.

Thing are different now because the Kishida faction is only the fifth-largest in the LDP, and Kishida’s base within the party is much weaker than that of Abe, who had the backing of the largest faction of nearly 100 members.

However, some in the party are appreciative of the recent trend since the tax hikes was finally set in line with the prime minister’s policy.

“After frank discussions, we came to an agreement. It should rather be said that the LDP has recovered its own character,” said a veteran lawmaker. At Friday’s press conference, Toshiaki Endo, chairman of the LDP’s General Council, said, “Diverse opinions are what the LDP is all about.”

Sense of caution

Kishida hopes to launch his economic policies next year or later, specifying measures for the new form of capitalism that is his signature issue.

“We’ve paved the way [to deal with] the security issues that we inherited from Abe. Next year, we want to concentrate on what we want to do,” said a person close to Kishida.

However, there is a strong sense of caution about modifying Abenomics, Abe’s economic policy package, especially among the Abe faction. Next April, the term of office will expire for Bank of Japan Gov. Haruhiko Kuroda, who pushed through the monetary easing policy that is one of the core elements of Abenomics.

In the appointment of Kuroda’s successor and other opportunities, Kishida will continue to be tested in his ability to rule the party while showing his particular characteristics.