Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Japan's Ambiguous Prime Minister

Kishida In The Danger Zone

By Takuya Nishimura, APP 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.
November 26, 2023. Special to Asia Policy Point

Despite new policies to help families, the approval rating of the Fumio Kishida Cabinet has plunged into a dangerous level below 30%. The polls show people’s frustration with Kishida’s ambiguous attitude toward repairing the economy. With his low popularity, Kishida is not likely to call a snap election to re-boot his administration. Some lawmakers in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) are beginning to consider replacements of the prime minister, who is also their party president. However, Kishida enjoys the luck of having no obvious successor.

The polls taken in the third weekend of November marked record low approval ratings for the Kishida Cabinet. Among three major newspapers: 25% approved Kishida Cabinet in Asahi Shimbun’s poll and 65% disapproved; Yomiuri Shimbun’s poll showed 24% approval and 62% disapproval; and Mainichi Shimbun’s found 21% approval and 74% disapproval. These approval ratings were the lowest not only since Kishida took office in October 2021, but since the LDP retook the administration from Democratic Party of Japan in 2012.

The main reason for the abrupt decline is Kishida’s economic policies. His administration announced a new economic stimulus plan earlier this month, including tax cuts for all taxpayers and their families and an allowance for low-income families. In the three polls above, less than 30% were positive about the tax cut and more than 60% were opposed.

Taxpayers are supposed to welcome any tax cut, which will return money to their wallets. But in this case the Japanese do not, because Kishida earlier had announced a tax increase for the defense budget. Recognizing widespread skepticism about the proposed tax cut, Kishida decided not to start the tax increase until FY 2024. But the tax increase eventually will take effect, and expectations for the tax cut have not risen.

Doubts about the future of the tax cut seemed to be confirmed when Minister of Finance Shun-ichi Suzuki revealed that the government’s budget surplus, which was supposed to cover the tax cut, has been spent already. A tax cut thus would require an additional issuance of government bonds. Given this situation, the issue becomes what is the purpose of the tax cut. The answer is for Kishida to win elections, not only the next general election of House of Representatives but also his own reelection as LDP president next fall (and thus remain prime minister).

Kishida’s other policies suffer from similar ambiguities and contradicitions. At the beginning of this year, Kishida proposed “different-dimensioned” measures to reverse the country’s declining birthrate. His cabinet approved a Children’s Future Strategic Plan in June. But in the fall, his focus shifted to ending deflation with the refrain “It’s the economy, economy and economy,” and he promoted policies for wage hikes and investment.

In the Diet discussion on the supplementary defense budget, the head of Constitutional Democratic Party, Kenta Izumi, argued that the delivery of economic measures were too late to help the people. Commodity price hikes have been damaging the people’s ordinary life. In response, the Kishida administration reluctantly began to consider the “trigger clause.” which would provide tax relief when gasoline prices rise steeply.

Kishida must be disappointed with the result of the polls, which were conducted soon after a series of mid-November diplomatic events in San Francisco. In the meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden, Kishida reconfirmed the close cooperation with Biden on the situation in Israel and Palestine and Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Kishida also agreed with Chinese President Xi Jinping on holding a High-level Economic Dialogue for cooperation on green-economy and medical-care issues. But those efforts did not move the public opinion dial.

It can be said that any potential gains in popularity as the result of diplomacy were offset by successive scandals in the Kishida administration. Just before Kishida flew to San Francisco, State Minister of Finance Kenji Kanda stepped down under suspicion of late tax payments by his businesses. Given Kanda’s role as tax collector, the delay was nothing but an insult to taxpayers.

Kanda was the fourth minister in a month to resign after a scandal. Each time, Kishida offered a rote response: admitting his responsibility as the appointor of ministers and expressing his determination to continue his job. The consecutive scandals, dubbed as “resignation domino,” revealed Kishida’s weakness in adequately vetting the personnel working for him.

Looking at the administration’s slump, at least one LDP member is considering entry in the post-Kishida race. Minister in charge of Economic Security Sanae Takaichi launched the “Power of Japan” Study Group with some fellow conservatives. Although Takaichi expects support from the Abe faction, the faction has already expressed its support for Kishida’s reelection. One of the five leaders of the Abe faction, Hiroshige Seko, has criticized her action as “questionable” for a Minister in the Kishida Cabinet.

Among the names raised in the polls, former Minister of Environment Shinjiro Koizumi and Minister for Digital Transformation Taro Kono are popular as post-Kishida figures. They share an interest in the introduction of a rideshare system in Japan to address the shortage of taxi drivers. Former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has joined their efforts. Although all three lawmakers represent districts in the Kanagawa Prefecture, they have not been able to turn ride sharing into a campaign issue.

There is speculation in the LDP that the current situation of Kishida administration resembles that of Taro Aso administration in late 2000s. After facing a major economic crisis with Lehman Shock, Aso’s approval rating fell as low as 25% in December 2008, and it kept on declining below 20%. Although the remaining term of the lawmakers in House of Representatives was less than a year, Aso did not dare call a snap election with such a low rating. Aso soon lost the general election in August 2009 and handed the government over to the DPJ.

It is notable that Aso maintained his administration for nine months after his approval rating had fallen to 25%. The polls showed that Aso was less popular than the opposition leader at the time, Ichiro Ozawa. Nevertheless, the lack of a prominent alternative leader in the LDP saved Aso from being replaced as LDP president and thus as prime minister.

Kishida has no prominent opposition leader challenging him. Takaichi has no hope of receiving meaningful support from the Abe faction. Supporters of Koizumi and Kono have not organized their campaign teams. Former Minister of Defense Shigeru Ishiba is popular in the polls, but he is a lone wolf in the LDP.

The major LDP factions still support Kishida, and thus his political standing continues. Moreover, the current money scandals among these factions may make them passive in a presidential race. Kishida maintains his unpopular administration through a strange balance of power in Japanese politics.

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