Tuesday, September 26, 2023

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Kishida Preserves His Administration

By Takuya Nishimura, Former Editorial Writer, The Hokkaido Shimbun
The views expressed by the author are his own and are not associated with The Hokkaido Shimbun
September 18, 2023. Special to Asia Policy Point
You can find his blog, J Update here.

On September 13th, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida reshuffled his Cabinet for the second time since coming to power in October 2021. Although personnel changes are ordinarily made to tackle difficult issues, Kishida focused on the balance of power in his administration. He reappointed most key Cabinet ministers and leaders of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Kishida must have thought that he had to preserve the LDP’s positions in the administration in order to garner their support in the presidential election next year.

The main point of the reshuffle was not about the Cabinet, but the LDP Board. The key structure of the board was maintained. Vice-President Taro Aso, Secretary General Toshimitsu Motegi and Chairman of Policy Research Council Koichi Hagiuda from the Abe group were retained remained in the same positions. The new Chairman of the General Council Hiroshi Moriyama leads the smallest faction.

According to the news reports, Kishida once wanted to replace Motegi, who did not conceal his ambition to succeed him. But considering that his faction is only the fourth largest in the LDP, Kishida was afraid that the Motegi group could further distance itself from his administration, if Motegi left the board. Kishida finally decided to let Motegi stay in his current position.

To deter Motegi’s plan to run in the next presidential election, Kishida picked Yuko Obuchi, a daughter of late, former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, for one of the four pillars on the LDP Board, the Chair of Election Strategy Committee. It gives her a chance to sell herself as another possible candidate for president in the Motegi group. Obuchi has strong support from her father’s close colleagues: Keizo’s successor Yoshiro Mori, who still has a considerable influence in the Abe group, and Mikio Aoki, who had not been a supporter of Motegi in the Motegi group.

The Yomiuri Shimbun and other newspapers reported that Kishida considered bringing Hagiuda into the cabinet as Chief Cabinet Secretary, hoping for a closer relationship with the largest Abe group. Hagiuda has been criticized, however, for his close relationship with Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (formerly the Unification Church, FFWPU). The relationship of FFWPU with a number of LDP lawmakers has caused low popularity of Kishida administration. Kishida and his staff finally gave up on the idea.

These decisions show that the main reason for the reshuffling and renewing LDP board members was to establish a firm basis of the administration to ensure victory in the presidential election next year. Kishida naming five women to ministerial positions, equaling the record of largest number of women in a cabinet, also reflects Kishida’s desire to increase public support for his reelection.

Some points in the reshuffling are hard to understand. Japan is the chair country of Group of Seven meeting later this fall, but Kishida chose to replace Yoshimasa Hayashi, the Minister for Foreign Affairs with Yoko Kamikawa. Kamikawa is known as the former Minister of Justice who signed death penalty orders for thirteen prisoners of Aum Shinrikyo in 2018. Both Hayashi and Kamikawa are affiliated with the Kishida group.

Since Kamikawa has little experience as a diplomat, Kishida said that he would lead diplomacy himself. Hayashi’s recent denouncement of Russian aggression in Ukraine and his remarks on the reconstruction of Ukraine might have presented a challenge to the prime minister.

If Kishida wants to raise his support, why didn’t he replace the ministers who faced public unpopularity? Minister in Charge of Economic Security Sanae Takaichi accused the Ministry of Internal Affair of fabricating her remarks in documents over impartiality in the Broadcasting Law. But no evidence supported the attack. It is obvious that she will be targeted by the opposition parties in the Diet discussion.

Elsewhere, the Minister for Digital Transformation, Taro Kono, has apologized publicly for several critical mistakes in registering people to the new healthcare system connected to My Number Card. Cabinet reshuffling was a good opportunity for a fresh restart for healthcare reform led by a new Minister for Digital Transformation, but Kishida missed it.

Blunt political considerations may explain why Takaichi and Kono survived the recent reshuffling. Both were contenders against Kishida in the 2021 LDP presidential election. Takaichi is one of the possible leaders in the conservative group, and Kono can be a candidate for the future prime minister in Aso group. Kishida possibly took the influence of the conservative and Aso groups into consideration.

Given the deference accorded two problematic ministers, it is ironic that Kishida replaced the Minister for Children Affairs and the Minister of Defense, both of whom are in charge of issues Kishida focuses on, in order to bring some element of newness to the cabinet.

Two meanings can be seen in picking Yoshitaka Shindo, an ultraconservative lawmaker whose grandfather was the supreme commander of Japan Imperial Army in the Battle of Iwo Jima and the head of a conservative group called 'League of Lawmakers Taking Action for Protecting Japan’s Territory.' One is a message to the conservative group in LDP that Kishida is taking good care of the conservative issues, including promoting constitutional amendment. But if Kishida is so serious about amending the Constitution, Shindo should stay in the LDP and manage the issue in the Diet. Another approach should be to separate Shindo from Motegi. Shindo has been a firm supporter of Motegi in his group. People will see how Motegi’s leadership in his group will be affected by the latest reshuffling.

In spite of all the above elements on the revived administration, Kishida claimed that his goal was not solely to preserve the political life of his administration. His focus was policy. Kishida said in his press conference on the 13th that he would focus on three issues: economy, society, and diplomacy and security.

While Kishida stresses salary increases for workers, inflation increasingly damages the household economy. The Kishida administration will submit a supplementary budget in the middle of next month. But budgetary resources for his key policies such as raising the birth rate or expanding defense capability have yet to be identified.

With her money scandal unexplained, Obuchi may cause further damage to the LDP. No end is in sight for the War in Ukraine or for disputes with China on the discharge of processed radioactive water in Fukushima. It is doubtful that a vulnerable administration that stands on a delicate balance of power in the leading party can handle all the critical issues inside and outside of Japan.

As long as support for the Kishida administration remains low, Kishida may not declare a snap election of House of Representatives. But there still is a speculation that passing the supplemental budget in this fall session of the Diet will trigger a snap election, because victory in the general election will support Kishida’s reelection in the LDP presidential election. All the calculations are made for preserving the life of this administration.

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