January 6, 2023
TOKYO – Prime Minister Fumio Kishida needs to overcome three hurdles this year — an ordinary Diet session to be convened later this month, the unified local elections, and specifying measures for tax increases associated with a planned boost in defense spending.
Tensions are likely to increase in the political arena since it is possible that the prime minister may decide to dissolve the House of Representatives and call a general election, depending on whether his Cabinet’s approval ratings improve.
“I want this year to be the one when I grapple with new challenges,” Kishida said in his first press conference of the year Wednesday. Speaking to reporters after a visit to Ise Jingu shrine in Ise, Mie Prefecture, he also said he will “grapple with the issues that cannot be postponed by honestly tackling them head on, one by one, and providing answers to them.”
Kishida used the word “grapple” repeatedly to emphasize his strong commitment to efforts to combat the declining birth rate and other issues.
The prime minister’s top-priority policy goal is the early passage of the budget for fiscal 2023, set to include a record ¥6.8 trillion in defense spending.
In December, the government revised the National Security Strategy and two other key security documents in an effort to drastically strengthen the nation’s defense capabilities.
The government also introduced a new energy strategy, announcing a revised policy to use nuclear power plants in a proactive manner.
During deliberations on budget proposals at an ordinary Diet session, heated debates are expected between the ruling bloc and opposition parties, including the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, which has intensified its opposition.
Some within the Liberal Democratic Party have floated the idea of reshuffling the Cabinet by replacing several ministers before the ordinary session to help buoy the administration. Kishida, however, is likely to hold off on a reshuffle for the time being as he is more concerned about the risk of another scandal involving ministers and others.
“As long as there are no scandals, we can get through debates with the opposition,” a senior government official said, as defense or energy policy-related posts are now held by veteran lawmakers. They include Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada, Finance Minister Shunichi Suzuki and Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura.
Kishida will face a rigorous test of his management competence within the LDP when, for instance, setting a date to start raising taxes associated with the planned boost in defense spending.
When Kishida put tax hikes on the agenda to secure financial resources to strengthen the nation’s defense in December, some within the LDP criticized him. Some of this criticism came from the Abe faction, the party’s largest, once led by the late former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
A fiscal 2023 tax reform outline announced by the LDP and its ruling coalition partner Komeito specifies increases in three taxes — corporate, income and tobacco — as revenue sources.
With the time frame for the hikes described only as an “appropriate time in or after 2024,” internal LDP conflicts are likely to flare up.
As a conflict immediately at hand, there will likely be a confrontation within the LDP between those in favor of the tax hikes and those wanting a more cautious approach during the preparation of the Basic Policy on Economic and Fiscal Management and Reform, which is to be compiled in June. Regarding the plan advocated by Kishida to double the budget for children, measures to secure financial resources, including raising taxes, need to be presented.
A leadership contest in the largest LDP faction also is expected to be intensified by July 8, the first anniversary of Abe’s death.
Potential leadership candidates who are cautious about a tax hike, including Koichi Hagiuda, chairperson of the LDP’s Policy Research Council, and Hiroshige Seko, LDP secretary general in the House of Councillors, are likely to intensify their moves.
Some LDP members, including a former cabinet minister, said that the House of Representatives should be dissolved and a mandate be sought through a national election, if the Cabinet’s approval rating recovers after a good showing by the ruling parties in the unified local elections and by-elections for the lower house.
At the press conference Wednesday, the prime minister stressed the possibility of an election before October 2025, when the terms of current members of the lower house are to expire.
“There can be an election before the tax hike. I will make a decision on the matter in my authority as prime minister,” he said.
The fate of the Kishida Cabinet is likely to depend on the results of the unified local elections, plus concurrent by-elections for Chiba Constituency No. 5, Wakayama Constituency No. 1 and Yamaguchi Constituency No. 4. With no major national elections scheduled for the rest of the year, a source close to the prime minister said: “The approval ratings for the Cabinet and the prime minister’s leadership can recover if the administration manages to get through the elections.”
However, there have been cases when the results of unified elections and by-elections for the lower and upper houses dealt a heavy blow to the government, leading to its collapse.
In the April 2011 unified local elections during the administration of Prime Minister Naoto Kan, candidates backed by the ruling Democratic Party of Japan suffered a complete defeat in gubernatorial elections in Tokyo, Hokkaido and Mie prefectures, which were battlegrounds between the DPJ and LDP.
The DPJ also fared poorly in the Hokkaido prefectural assembly election, and failed to even field a candidate in the by-election for Aichi Constituency No. 6, which was held at the time. The LDP and Komeito ratcheted up pressure to force Kan to step down, and his Cabinet resigned en masse in August that year.