February 13, 2023
TOKYO – When will Prime Minister Fumio Kishida dissolve the House of Representatives? Many politicians in Japan are focused on that question.
Koichi Hagiuda, chairperson of the Liberal Democratic Party’s Policy Research Council, has repeatedly urged the dissolution of the lower house for a general election before the Diet votes on tax hikes to cover an increased defense budget. “When we have asked the people to pay new taxes in the past, we always got their consent through elections. We need to do so this time as a matter of course,” he said on a Jan. 31 internet broadcast.
Kishida is calling for tax hikes of ¥1 trillion by fiscal 2027 to pay for Japan’s massive defense buildup. The government and the ruling parties are considering raising the corporate and tobacco taxes in stages from fiscal 2024 or later. They are also weighing a plan to adapt a special tax that was originally designed to finance reconstruction for areas affected by the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.
Kishida’s term as LDP president concludes at the end of September 2024, before the term of current lower house lawmakers expires in October 2025. Within the LDP, there is a view that a full-fledged tax hike will be carried out in 2025 or later, and some Finance Ministry officials expressed the opinion that 2024 would be the right time for the prime minister to hold a national election over a tax hike.
But some of Kishida’s aides don’t agree with that strategy. They insist that the election should be held if the Cabinet’s approval rating recovers after a good showing by the ruling parties in local elections this spring. The unified local elections, plus concurrent by-elections for lower house seats in Chiba Constituency No. 5, Wakayama Constituency No. 1 and Yamaguchi Constituencies Nos. 2 and 4, are scheduled to be held in April.
Kishida’s closest aide, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Seiji Kihara, told his allies, “The only thing that scares me now is the spring elections.”
Kishida intends to boost his support by displaying leadership abilities at the Group of Seven summit. The gathering will be held in his family’s hometown of Hiroshima on May 19-21. Arrangements are being made for the G7 leaders to visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, which features exhibits about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. Kishida’s plan is to emphasize the importance of working toward a “world without nuclear weapons” and to convey the unity of the G7 to the world. A senior government official speculates that Kishida may call a snap general election during the Diet session in summer or autumn after a G7 success.
The low approval rating for Kishida’s Cabinet recently has shown slight signs of recovering. The disapproval rating was 47% in a national survey conducted by The Yomiuri Shimbun on Jan. 13-15, down from 52% in the poll conducted on Dec. 2-4, although the approval rating was unchanged from the previous 39%.
Nevertheless, the Cabinet is now being shaken by a series of problems, such as an executive secretary’s disparaging remarks about sexual minorities and a weekly magazine report that Kishida’s eldest son and secretary, Shotaro, used an official car for personal sightseeing on a recent overseas trip.
Kishida’s recent reference to extraordinary measures to tackle Japan’s declining birthrate by expanding the child allowance system has created a stir within the LDP.
Speaking at a House of Representatives interpellation on Jan. 25, LDP Secretary General Toshimitsu Motegi said, “The income limit for parents to receive child allowances should be removed to support the growth of all children.” But Hagiuda has expressed unease because the debate about child allowances has not yet been settled within the LDP itself. The government will face difficulty in securing new financial resources, as about ¥2.55 trillion per year will be needed to expand the system.
A recent Yomiuri Shimbun poll found strong opposition to increasing the burden on the public through such measures as more tax hikes. Some LDP members, including a former cabinet minister, have a pessimistic view that the approval rating will not recover much and Kishida cannot gamble on dissolving the lower house this year.
In 2021, Kishida made a bold move. He decided to hold a general election on Oct. 31, which was a totally unexpected schedule even for most LDP officials. The ruling coalition of the LDP and Komeito maintained its majority in the House of Representatives.
Kishida generally consults with Motegi and LDP Vice President Taro Aso about important policies. But recently there has been subtle discord among the “top three” regarding how to boost the administration. When Aso and Motegi considered a plan to invite the Democratic Party for the People into the ruling coalition government, Kishida gave only a noncommittal answer. Talks on the party joining the coalition didn’t move forward.
Motegi is said to have complained to pepole around him, “I sometimes don’t understand what Kishida is thinking.” A critic in the LDP leadership says that Kishida actually is not a good listener even though he emphasizes his listening skills.
Many lawmakers may spend uneasy days from this summer, worrying about Kishida’s second surprise attack.