November 15, 2023
TOKYO – Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is in a tight spot.
He is giving money away, but he is so unpopular that the public cynically sees it as a ploy to win votes.
He is facing down unrest within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) as senior figures openly criticise his policies.
To make matters worse, his judgment in personnel matters has been called into question after three junior ministers – appointed in a Cabinet reshuffle in September – were sacked within three weeks.
On Monday, Mr Kenji Kanda, 60, was fired as vice-finance minister for tax evasion. Mr Mito Kakizawa, 52, was let go as vice-justice minister on Oct 31 for election law violations. And Mr Taro Yamada, 56, was dismissed as vice-education minister on Oct 26 for adultery.
Mr Kishida, 66, is running out of time to turn things around and may end up becoming the latest in a line of short-lived prime ministers in Japan.
An LDP presidential election must be called in September 2024 to choose the party leader, and hence Prime Minister, given that the LDP is the ruling party. Mr Kishida’s economic security minister Sanae Takaichi, 62, has already said she intends to run.
National elections are due in the second half of 2025.
A leader under pressure with poor poll numbers may be compelled to quit, just as Mr Kishida’s predecessor Yoshihide Suga did in 2021 after only a year in the hot seat, noted Sophia University political scientist Koichi Nakano.
“Doing so would allow them to retain some influence as a kingmaker, rather than being forced out when the guillotine comes down,” he told The Straits Times, adding that the average tenure of a Japanese PM is about two years.
He said: “It seems ingrained in the psyche of LDP politicians to smell blood if they know voters are getting bored or angry with the prime minister, in favour of an acceptable compromise candidate who can bring peace back to the party.”
Even the promise of a tax rebate could not shore up public support for Mr Kishida. On Nov 2, he announced that 40,000 yen (S$360) in tax revenues will be returned to taxpayers in June 2024 to help households cope with inflation.
Nevertheless, a Nov 10 to 12 poll by public broadcaster NHK showed the approval rating of Mr Kishida’s Cabinet at 29 per cent, down seven percentage points from October.
The plunge was in line with other polls since the announcement.
The approval rating for Mr Kishida’s team, according to a Kyodo News poll from Nov 3 to 5, slipped 4 percentage points from an October poll to 28.3 per cent, the lowest for an LDP government since 2009. That year, the LDP lost power in a general election.
“He may be running out of time because the LDP presidential election is looming,” Dr Sota Kato, a former bureaucrat now with The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research think-tank, told ST.
“Unless he manages to increase his ratings in the next six months or wins a snap election, I believe it will be difficult for him to be re-elected in the next presidential election.”
Mr Kishida had made no secret of his plans to call a snap election by the end of 2023 to strengthen his position in the LDP, where he leads the fourth-largest faction. A strong showing would quiet the unrest within the party.
But an LDP parliamentarian told Kyodo News that if the PM “dares to take the risky gamble of dissolving the Lower House, many LDP lawmakers will attempt to oust his government as they believe that the party will lose a snap election under him”.
The dissent is evident – even the LDP’s Upper House secretary-general Hiroshige Seko did not mince his words when he said in the Diet that Mr Kishida “has not shown himself to be a leader”.
The problem, Dr Toru Yoshida of Doshisha University in Kyoto said, was that “the public fails to see any effective policies that improve their lives”, while Mr Kishida’s government has also “not been able to effectively convey to them what it wants to do”.
A series of policies is regarded as tone-deaf at best, and misguided at worst.
People are feeling poorer than before. Real wages have shrunk for 18 straight months, dropping 2.4 per cent in September from the previous year, with inflation hurting household spending.
Yet the government has tabled a Bill to raise ministerial salaries, creating an impression that Mr Kishida was fattening his own pockets. Even senior members of the ruling coalition are calling for the Bill to be reviewed amid a public backlash.
The tax rebate, meanwhile, seems to be in response to a derogatory nickname zozei-megane (bespectacled tax hiker) for Mr Kishida.
But the tax rebate plan was not discussed with party bigwigs.
While Mr Kishida had said that the rebates would come from an increase in income and resident tax revenues, his own Finance Minister Shunichi Suzuki said such a funding plan was not feasible and would likely worsen public debt that is already at 264 per cent of the gross domestic product.
Mr Suzuki told the Diet that the tax revenue increase has already been factored into policy-related spending and could not be used to fund the rebates.
There is bad precedent: In 1998, then-Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto had also offered tax reductions amid the Asian financial crisis. But this cut no ice with voters, and the LDP lost an Upper House poll that year.
Another example of Mr Kishida’s contradictory messaging is his Cabinet picks in September.
While Mr Kishida said he wanted to set a strong statement for female empowerment by enlisting a record-tying five women in his 20-strong Cabinet, this was weakened when he filled all 54 junior ministerial positions with men – including the trio who have been sacked.
Observers said Mr Kishida’s best shot at turning the ship around would be if the economy improves before September 2024, allowing him to call a snap election to consolidate his position.
The Premier, along with the Japanese Trade Union Confederation, is calling for wage hikes of at least 5 per cent during the annual wage negotiations, or shunto, though whether companies would heed the call is another matter.
Mr Kishida should leverage his strengths in diplomacy, Dr Kato said, noting bumps in support for the PM after he visited war-torn Ukraine in March 2023 and chaired the G-7 Hiroshima summit in May, which was attended by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Dr Kato said of Mr Kishida, post-war Japan’s longest-serving foreign minister: “Foreign policy is an area in which Mr Kishida rarely loses points.”