Wednesday, November 22, 2023

How Stable is Kishida's Government?

Japan’s By-elections Generate Instability

By Takuya Nishimura, Senior Fellow, Former 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 23, 2023. Special to Asia Policy Point

On October 22nd in two by-elections, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) won one and lost the other. This is not a draw, because both seats had been occupied by the LDP. Now the LDP holds one seat fewer in the Diet. The election results reveal instability in Fumio Kishida’s administration, which is facing public frustration with inflation and his government’s indecisiveness. The possibility of a snap election this year is declining while skepticism of Prime Minister Kishida’s leadership is on the rise.
The first of the two elections was set in the Tokushima-Kochi district for the House of Councillors after the June resignation of Kojiro Takano, who was accused of violence against a member of his staff. Ken Nishiuchi, a former member of Kochi Prefectural Assembly ran on the LDP ticket. The opposition parties (except for the Innovation Party) agreed to support Hajime Hirota, a former Upper House member with the Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP).
Hirota won by a large margin. LDP was at a disadvantage from the start because of widespread criticism of Takano. Having experienced a bitter defeat in the 2022 election, in which the opposition parties were divided, the CDP, the National Democratic Party, the Social Democratic Party, and the Japan Communist Party all supported Hirota. While the parties hailed the result as an achievement of cooperation, it is unlikely to lead to a dramatic increase in unified candidate in every district. Some regions are still firmly opposed to the CDP.
The LDP won the election in the Nagasaki 4th district of the House of Representatives by a narrow margin that must be regarded as a stroke of luck. The local organization of the LDP has been divided in local gubernatorial and mayoral elections. The LDP’s candidate, Yozo Kaneko had the advantage of name recognition: he is a son of former governor and former Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Genjiro Kaneko. Yozo also benefited from low turnout. The result was that the share of LDP supporters increased among those who voted.
Yet, the wind is blowing against the LDP. As with most ordinary people in Japan, the voters in Nagasaki are tired of persistent inflation. Kishida’s idea of a tax increase to fund the defense budget was overwhelmingly unpopular. He had ordered the LDP to consider income tax cuts just before the voting day, but that indecisive attitude caused more disappointment than expectation.
A month ago, LDP Vice-president Taro Aso accused the coalition partner Komeito as “cancer” in the discussion over defense policy. That worked against Kaneko’s campaign, which relied on Komeito’s support. Defense Minister Minoru Kihara’s gaffe during the campaign, asking voters to support the Self-defense Force, possibly had a negative impact on the campaign as well. It would not have been strange if the LDP had lost in the Nagasaki 4th.
Although LDP had set a goal of winning just one of the two by-elections, the result of the by-elections will damage the Kishida administration. As seen in the reshuffle of his Cabinet last month, Kishida’s primary goal is reelection next year. For that purpose, Kishida has been willing to take advantage of his authority to dissolve the House of Representatives and to call for a snap election at any time.
A week before the election day, all the polls by the newspapers of Asahi, Mainichi, Yomiuri and Kyodo News marked the lowest voter approval rate of the Kishida Cabinet since it took office. Even though Kishida administration has sought to eliminate the Family Federation of World Peace and Unification, a step that most people supported, it did not help improve the rating. While the polls suggested that administrative failures, such as the the registration of My Number Card caused the decline, Kishida said only that he would deal with the issues that could not be postponed.
The result of by-elections may accelerate the downward trend in the polls. Kishida obviously must show some policy achievements to reverse the trend. Kishida is now focused on economic measures, given public frustration with inflation. But these efforts will not yield much benefit in the short term.
The economic measures involve tax cuts and new government spending. The Bank of Japan has continued monetary easing. All of these policies, however, are inflationary in nature. The Prime Minister continues to argue that he will improve the ordinary life of the people, but he will look to be doing nothing until the policies show results. 
Not only the opposition parties but also LDP lawmakers are raising objections to the possible dissolution of the House of Representatives by the end of the year. It is not uncommon for the lawmakers to defy their prime minister with low popularity when he seeks the dissolution, because the following general election will present a big risk for their survival.
If the party leader is not reliable, it is natural for the members to try to replace him. Each faction in the party will discuss how to avoid the crisis and will propose candidates in the election next fall. To keep away from that vicious circle, Kishida has at least to raise his approval rating and show some policy achievements within this year.
It is unclear whether Kishida recognizes the difficulty he is in. “We’re taking the results seriously and will make every effort to deal with the situation,” Kishida said to the reporters the day after the election. That indicated that the result of the election was not good for Kishida. In the policy speech to the Diet on the same day, Kishida stressed his eagerness to grab the opportunity for changes in the economy. While he reiterated his effort to raise workers’ wages, there was no clear prescription on the inflation.
The chief of Diet affairs in Constitutional Democratic Party, Jun Azumi, said that the results of the by-election showed that many voters were dissatisfied with or uncertain about the Kishida Cabinet’s failure to quickly take steps against rising prices. The opposition parties questioned Kishida’s policy handling in the discussions at the extraordinary session of the Diet convened last Friday, October 20th.
Although only by-elections, the results may affect national politics. The competency of Kishida’s administration was questioned in the campaign. When the LDP introduced the current by-election system in 2000, which holds by-elections only twice a year, the purpose was to avoid political instability brought about by each unpredictable by-election. But consolidated by-elections may also have a large impact on politics. It is sometimes possible that the mishandling of a by-election can lead to the collapse of an administration.

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