Few Accomplishments Lots of Politics
By Takuya Nishimura, Senior Fellow, retired Editorial Writer for The Hokkaido Shimbun
The views expressed by the author are his own and are not associated with The Hokkaido Shimbun
You can find his blog, J Update here.
October 9, 2023. Special to Asia Policy Point
Two years have passed since Fumio Kishida became Prime Minister on October 4, 2021. During this time, no outstanding achievements can be seen except for adherence to the political agenda set by former administrations: namely, expanding the security budget and discharging radioactive Fukushima processed water into the sea. Unsurprisingly, public support for the Kishida Cabinet is low and declining. As seen in the recent reshuffling of his Cabinet and the appointment of new leaders of Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Kishida is still struggling to maintain his administration.
Kishida faced two historical challenges last year: Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and the assassination of former prime minister Shinzo Abe. Soon after Russia invaded Ukraine, Kishida boldly and directly accused Russia of “aggression.” This response might have been milder and more diplomatic if Abe were still in office.
Kishida’s hardline policy toward Russia hurt future negotiations with Russia. But it may have been worth the price. Kishida’s leadership at the Group of Seven (G7) summit meeting in Hiroshima this past May, in which the world leaders stood together with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy against Russia, increased his popularity in the polls.
Kishida was tested as a national leader when Abe was shot to death last summer. Kishida was unable to generate a broad discussion in the Diet about whether the administration would decide to have a national funeral for Abe. As a result, Kishida only considered the emotions of conservative groups in the LDP. Once it became clear that the shooter’s motivation was a grievance against the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, Kishida was slow in disclosing the relationship between the religious organization and LDP.
Polls show that the support for the Kishida administration, which rose gradually at the beginning, declined steeply after the assassination of Abe. This volatility has continued. Public support lifted again in the first half of this year when Kishida was the chairman of the G7, but it fell again with public frustration with the implementation of the My Number identification card and with money scandals of LDP lawmakers.
A litmus test for a political leader is how it handles controversial issues. Kishida renewed the three major documents for defense last December, enabling the Self-Defense Force to have a capability of attacking enemy bases. While it has a possibility of violating the principle of exclusively defense-oriented policy the constitution requires, Kishida avoided discussing the constitutionality of the capability in the Diet. Kishida administration decided to expand defense budget to ¥43 trillion in next five years. But he has not explained how to accumulate the budget to that level. Taxpayers are worried about additional tax increase, dubbing Kishida “the tax raiser wearing glasses.” Anyway, those defense policies are in the agenda that Kishida inherited from Abe administration.
The list of administration scandals has swollen. Some Ministers of Kishida Cabinet stepped down last year because of complex relationships with FFWPU, gaffes, or money scandals. The most recent revelation was of an inappropriate relationship between a LDP lawmaker and a businessman involved in wind power generation. Kishida did not exercise leadership to improve ethical aspect of political activities of his colleagues.
Because the Kishida administration lacks clear policy goals, public support has remained low. At the beginning of his administration, Kishida insisted on reviving his faction of the LDP, the Kochi-kai. His predecessor, Abe, led a different faction, the Seiwa-kai, which stood for strong leadership and invited controversy on its hawkish stance. By contrast, Kishida’s Kochi-kai faction focuses more on the economy than security. Kishida has proposed some policies, such as doubling people’s income or “the garden city concept,” which traced the projects of former Kochi-kai leaders such as Hayato Ikeda and Masayoshi Ohira. These policies have not, however, worked out well in Kishida administration.
Such modest policies were not the high-profile goals of the second Abe administration that began in December 2012. Soon after he took the office, Abe announced the “three arrows” of Abenomics: bold monetary policy, mobilization of fiscal policy and growth strategy. He appointed Haruhiko Kuroda as Governor of Bank of Japan, who continuously issued surprising monetary easing policies. Abe also did not hide his intention to amend the constitution, particularly to allow amendments on the basis of a simple majority rather than the two-thirds supermajority required in Article 96.
Kishida is more interested in the ordinary life of the people rather than in state management. Wage hikes or increases in the birth rate are less economic policy and more moderate conservative social policy. But those policies do not hold strong appeal because they take a long time to show results. For example, the government’s increased support for young couples will not raise the birth rate anytime soon.
In an administration with low popularity, political manipulations take center stage. Removing Yoshimasa Hayashi as Foreign Minister in the recent Cabinet reshuffle was a tactic by Kishida to help his reelection next year as LDP president. Hayashi’s main job now is to enhance solidarity within the Kochi-kai and establish firm support within the LDP for Kishida’s reelection.
The good news for Kishida is the unpopularity of the opposition parties. No party other than the LDP has more than ten percent support in the opinion polls. Even though Kishida is unpopular, the opposition parties will not be able to achieve victory in next general election. The upcoming by-elections on October 22 in the Tokushima-Kochi District for the House of Councillors and in the Nagasaki 4th for the House of Representatives will be a good gauge of the public’s approval of Kishida’s policies. The results promise to influence the prime minister’s decision on whether to hold a much-discussed snap election.