Monday, May 27, 2024

The Fruit of the April By-elections

 Not Good News for Kishida

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.
May 19, 2024. Special to Asia Policy Point

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is now reaping the bitter fruit of the LDP’s defeats in the three recent by-elections. The Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) coalition partner, Komeito, has refused to co-sponsor amendments to the Political Funds Control Act (PFCA). Kishida had announced that the amendments would be approved by the end of current Diet session. Some LDP leaders are skeptical of Kishida’s handling of the matter.

Although LDP and Komeito reached a rough agreement several weeks ago over revisions to the PFCA, they did not agree on two points: lowering the threshold for disclosing the identities of purchasers of fundraising party tickets and disclosing details about “policy activity funds.”

The LDP has proposed that the threshold for the disclosure of identities be 100,000 yen, but Komeito has insisted on 50,000 yen. The LDP also has proposed only modest changes to rules governing policy activity funds: parties would have to report only the sum of expenditures for each program, such as party events, elections, public relations, and research. This disclosure would be triggered only when a party transfers more than 500,000 yen to a lawmaker. Komeito would not agree to such minor reforms. 

Is the difference between 100,000 yen and 50,000 yen so large? Not really – but the difference can be crucial for the LDP and some lawmakers who have not found their footing in the coming election. The LDP would prefer to support vulnerable lawmakers than to support Kishida.

Komeito sees only a downside to supporting the LDP proposals. In the by-election in Shimane 1 district, Komeito supported an LDP candidate who lost by a wide margin to the Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP) candidate. The lesson that Komeito took was that a coalition with the LDP would work against them in future elections. Komeito might also have realized that any compromise on revisions to the PFCA would send a wrong message to the voters.

Kishida has been promising to restore public confidence in politics by restructuring the system of political fundraising and expenditures, including the addition to the PFCA of stricter rules on political funds. But when he approved the LDP’s draft of reforms, he did not take Komeito’s frustration into account. “It became an effective draft not to repeat the same scandal, and I will make it for restoring confidence for politics,” said Kishida as the LDP unilaterally submitted the draft to the Diet.

Komeito did not submit its own draft to avoid jeopardizing its relationship with the LDP. It is still possible that the LDP and Komeito will reach a deal as negotiations in the Diet continue. The CDP submitted its own draft co-sponsored with the Democratic Party for the People. The CDP draft includes complete abolition of the policy activity fund.

The polls in May showed the fundamental unpopularity of the Kishida administration. The approval rating for the Kishida Cabinet was 24%, two points down from April in the poll of Asahi Shimbun. The Yomiuri poll showed a 26% approval rating, up one point from April. In the poll of Mainichi Shimbunthe CDP overtook the LDP with 20% favoring the CDP and 17% the LDP. Kishida’s weak leadership in the negotiations over PFCA has solidified the unpopularity of his administration.

Kishida now is isolated not only from the LDP’s coalition partner but also from members of his own party. Former Minister for Digital Affairs, Takuya Hirai, has questioned Kishida’s leadership. “The LDP dug its own grave making the issue complicated by dissolving factions or imposing penalties on the lawmakers,” said Hirai. Kishida made the decisions on factions and penalties.

One of the lawmakers in the Abe faction who was penalized for his involvement in the slush fund scandal, Hakubun Shimomura, demanded that Kishida conduct another interview of a former prime minister, Yoshiro Mori, in order to reassess Mori’s role. Kishida had told the Diet that he had confirmed that Mori had no involvement. However, in a magazine article, Mori said that Kishida had not asked him about it.  Shimomura asked for a further investigation of Mori, citing Kishida’s responsibility as the president of LDP.

Kishida seems to be losing grip in the LDP. Kishida punished LDP lawmakers who were involved in the slush fund scandal. The former Chair of the LDP Policy Research Council, Koichi Hagiuda, was suspended from any leadership position for a year. However, Hagiuda was allowed to retain his position as president of the LDP Tokyo branch where he is expected to manage the campaign leading to the gubernatorial election in July. Although the LDP generally distinguishes local leaders from national leaders, Hagiuda’s position in Tokyo, notwithstanding his suspension at the national level, reflects something of a double standard.

Gaffes by LDP leaders have compounded the trouble facing the Kishida administration. The chairperson of the LDP Political Reform Council, Keisuke Suzuki, said that political reform was partly a political maneuver to weaken the LDP. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Yoko Kamikawa, was forced to retract her remarks in the Shizuoka gubernatorial campaign. Meeting with women voters, Kamikawa asked rhetorically, “What is a woman who would not give birth to” the candidate. Media reports suggested that Kamikawa regarded woman as the sex that gives birth but not one that has a choice in the matter.

Many are wondering who would replace Kishida. Former Chief Cabinet Secretary, Katsunobu Kato, indicated the possibility of his running for LDP president, if he were asked to do so. Shigeru Ishiba, who has received the highest polling numbers as a potential replacement, was reportedly asked to run, in a meeting with former Premier Junichiro Koizumi and his colleagues. Kishida’s own prospects for re-election this fall continue to dim.

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