Friday, June 14, 2024

The Option for a Snap Election in Japan has Disappeared

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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.
June 10, 2024. Special to Asia Policy Point

Some newspapers have reported that Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has abandoned the idea of dissolving the House of Representatives (Lower House) and holding a snap election. This was seen as an option for Kishida to preserve his administration notwithstanding its low popularity. But considering public skepticism about Kishida’s handling of the slush fund scandal in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the party’s recent electoral defeats, this option is no longer viable.

The Asahi Shimbun reported on June 4 that Kishida was about to make a final decision not to call a snap election based on multiple sources in the Kishida administration. Yomiuri Shimbun followed Asahi the next day with a report that Kishida had told some of his allies of his decision.

Kishida had hoped to call for a general election at the end of the Diet session (June 23), by which time an official visit to the United States in April and a tax cut in June would have raised his approval ratings enough to secure his reelection When these events did not improve his popularity, Kishida was forced to give up that option.

“I am now involved in some political issues which cannot be postponed. I am thinking about nothing but to bring outcomes on those issues,” Kishida told reporters on the day Asahi published its story at the top of the front page. Kishida will focus now on achieving a positive economic cycle with wage and price hikes and on repairing public confidence in politics.

It is possible that both Asahi or Yomiuri interviewed Kishida. Both reports were based on unnamed sources inside the Kishida administration or the LDP. Politicians often seek anonymity in the media when they face an important decision, like calling a snap election. They leak information to reporters to control the situation.

The LDP’s loss of seats in all three by-elections, including the by-election in Tokyo in which the LDP could not even field a candidate, undermined Kishida’s credibility as a leader for an election. It was obvious to most lawmakers in both the LDP and Komeito that they would face disastrous consequences if Kishida called a snap election in the current political environment.

With no hope of fielding a winnable candidate in the Tokyo gubernatorial election next month, the LDP is seeking an opportunity to support incumbent, Yuriko Koike, who left the LDP seven years ago.

Kishida’s power to dissolve the Lower House is widely believed to stem from Article 7 of the Constitution. This Article provides that the Emperor may dissolve the House of Representatives “with the advice and approval of the Cabinet.” Lawmakers have long interpreted “advice and approval” to authorize a prime minister to call a snap election whenever he or she likes.

Article 69 presents another way to dissolve the Lower House. It states that, if the House passes a no-confidence resolution or rejects a confidence resolution, the Cabinet will resign en masse, unless the House of Representatives is dissolved within ten days. If the Cabinet relies on Article 7 to dissolve the Lower House, the Cabinet can survive resolution a vote of no-confidence at least until the new Lower House is convened after a general election.

The prime minister’s exclusive authority to call a snap election is a matter of constitutional interpretation. But Kishida cannot do so unilaterally. Were he to try, the LDP leaders could immediately begin the process of replacing him as the president and passing a non-confidence resolution in the House of Representatives. Calling a snap election effectively requires the consent of the LDP leaders.

They are currently opposed to a snap election because it would benefit only Kishida and not the LDP. Kishida has alienated his closest ally, former prime minister Taro Aso, by negotiating a compromise with Komeito and the Ishin on revisions to the Political Funds Control Act. Through this compromise, as well as the decisions to dissolve his own faction in January and to attend the Political Ethics Council in the Diet in February, Kishida has eroded his political basis.

The LDP Secretary General, Toshimitsu Motegi, has not concealed his ambition to succeed Kishida. He has been traveling around Japan to publicize his work on political reform. Former prime minister Yoshihide Suga, who unwillingly handed his seat over to Kishida in 2021, has held nighttime meetings with LDP leaders, inviting speculation that he may be seeking a kingmaker role.

The only way for Kishida to survive this crisis is to improve his approval rating. However, there has been no significant boost to his popularity, even after the Diet passed a bill to increase the birth rate, a principal policy objective for Kishida. The system of tax cuts starting June is too complicated for the taxpayers to realize any benefit soon. And Kishida’s trilateral summit meeting with the leaders of China and Republic of Korea did not garner much public attention.

From the beginning of his administration, Kishida has been promoting his policies as a “new form of capitalism.” His goals included wage increases and the Digital Garden City Nations initiative. The slush fund scandal, however, has interrupted any progress toward these objectives.

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