Why Japan's new prime minister is between a rock and a hard place

Kishida has yet to excite the public ahead of next week's election for a reason he cannot easily overcome

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida holds up a placard reading 'Corona Disease Countermeasures, New Capitalism, Diplomacy and Security' at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo last week. Reuters
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If Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is feeling embattled barely three weeks after taking office, it is for good reason. His 126 million compatriots aren’t giving him a whole lot of love right now.

His narrowest of victories last month to become leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party showed that support for him is neither widespread nor rock-solid.

Mr Kishida’s reluctant reliance on Shinzo Abe’s deft manoeuvring to corral enough votes to win the four-way race means that he is now beholden to his former boss. The shadow of Mr Abe – Japan’s longest-serving prime minister until he stepped down last year – is long enough as it is to put any successor in the shade for the foreseeable future. Mr Kishida, who was once foreign minister in Mr Abe’s cabinet, has the additional burden of effectively sharing power with him.

The prime minister has yet to show any signs of making his own road, and recent polling data reveals his inability to make a clean break from the Abe years. This will be a problem with the broader electorate ahead of next week’s lower house election.

At the time of its unveiling earlier this month, Mr Kishida’s cabinet received between just 40 and 49 per cent public approval across nine polls. It’s not only uncommonly low for a brand-new cabinet, it is at least 10-15 per cent lower than what Mr Kishida’s immediate predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, received when he announced his cabinet a little more than a year ago. Given how unpopular Mr Suga proved to be throughout his time in office, the current incumbent’s numbers are troubling – particularly as Mr Kishida ushered in 13 newcomers.

More importantly, a survey by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper showed only 38 per cent of those polled said they would vote for the LDP in the election. With other polls showing similar results, it is little wonder that Mr Kishida has significantly lowered his expectations of the party’s electoral performance. A simple majority of 233 seats in the 465-seat chamber, he said, would amount to a victory.

Numerically, that would be the case, of course – and it is difficult to imagine the LDP won't achieve the magic figure. But the failure to grab a super-majority would cost the party precious bargaining chips with the coalition of opposition parties. In Japanese politics, super-majorities are needed in order to push certain reforms, including many the LDP wants, through the legislature. A simple majority would also give Mr Kishida less room to pursue his agenda, which includes passing legislation that would allow for more wealth redistribution as part of his plan to boost Japan’s post-pandemic economy.

Shinzo Abe, right, walks past Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, centre, during a parliament session in Tokyo earlier in the month. AFP

Some have pointed to Mr Kishida’s apparently wooden personality for his anaemic numbers. But what’s more difficult to shake off is his image as that of an establishmentarian who would opt to pursue Mr Abe’s trickle-down economic policies, which many believe favoured only the rich and powerful. Mr Kishida described these policies as “neoliberal” during the LDP leadership race and promised to end some of them, but walked back his remarks days after he was sworn in, saying achieving economic growth is as important as redistribution.

Given the fact that Mr Abe is his political sponsor, Mr Kishida’s volte-face may seem unsurprising. But he is likely to have made this and other compromises with gritted teeth. The prime minister is no Abe acolyte or even ally. Although they are peers who began their legislative careers in the same year, 1993, their political ideologies have very little overlap. As opposed to Mr Abe, who is known for his hawkish and conservative views, Mr Kishida is a centrist belonging to a progressive faction within the LDP. In fact, Mr Kishida had even pledged to investigate a scandal allegedly involving, among other politicians, Mr Abe.

But Mr Abe’s favours to Mr Kishida are having their desired effect. There is no longer any mention of the scandal. Mr Kishida has rolled back other campaign pledges, including raising wages of medical workers and changing the country’s taxes on capital gains and dividends. And a number of Mr Abe’s acolytes, meanwhile, are now ministers.

Kishida may have some limitations, but a lack of experience isn’t one of them

All of this could serve to reduce, if it hasn’t already reduced, Mr Kishida’s influence in the party. The worry, then, is whether he will be forced out of office after just one year, as was the case with many previous leaders who also didn’t enjoy the necessary widespread support to withstand factionalism.

Mr Kishida’s future undoubtedly hangs in the balance. Next week’s election is one test, but another will be his ability to get Japan on a post-pandemic recovery track thereafter. Given the reduction in Covid-19 infections and deaths, combined with a vaccination drive in full swing – for which Mr Suga deserves a lion’s share of the credit – the timing could prove fortuitous for the new prime minister. An improved performance in next year’s crucial upper house election, on the back of a steady year, could conceivably help him consolidate his power within the party.

This will have a bearing on Japan's near-term future. For, what the country needs at this moment is a steady hand. Mr Kishida may have some limitations, but a lack of experience isn’t one of them. And if he can tackle the various challenges over the coming year – assuming his party forms the next government – there is no reason to believe the Japanese public won’t come round to his leadership.

Published: October 25, 2021, 4:23 PM