Tokyo Report

Can a Cabinet Reshuffle Reverse Abe’s Downward Spiral?

The LDP takes another electoral hit as approval ratings continue to slide.

Can a Cabinet Reshuffle Reverse Abe’s Downward Spiral?
Credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

Ever since Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike’s neophyte party surged to victory in the July 2 Tokyo Metropolitan elections, the popularity of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party has been in a downward spiral.

Ten major polls by Japanese media organizations show that Cabinet approval ratings have dipped below 40 percent, ranging from Nikkei Inc./TV Tokyo’s finding of 39 percent to Mainichi Shimbun’s 26 percent. As recently as January, most polls showed support for the LDP Cabinet in the 50-60 percent range – but that was before the Moritomo Gakuen scandal, the Kake Educational Institution scandal, the peacekeeping operations’ pullout from South Sudan, and numerous gaffes by Abe protégé, Defense Minister Tomomi Inada. However, the decline in LDP support is not translating into support for any other established party – rather, it is leading to an upswell in individuals who identify as “independent,” a nebulous term that has little weight in Japan.

On Sunday, the LDP and Koemito-backed candidate, Hironori Sugawara, lost in the Sendai mayoral election. Though a local race, it drew attention because it was a head-to-head race between Sugawara and Kazuko Kori, who was supported by the Democratic Party (DP) and three other opposition parties. Kori ran on a platform to tackle school bullying, increasing assistance to child-rearing families, and launch scholarships to help young people get settled in Sendai. She also benefited from running against the Kake scandal. An LDP lawmaker from the region commented, “The defeat in the biggest city in the Tohoku region is shocking.”

The next local election is the mayoral election in Yokohama on July 30 – in the home turf of Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga. Though Suga had traveled to Sendai to support Sugawara he had to pull out of a scheduled stump speech due to mounting criticism of the LDP. Whether his party does better in Suga’s native Yokohama will be especially telling. It is a critical race for the LDP before the Cabinet shakeup scheduled for August 3.

Reshuffling the Cabinet is a common tactic used to boost flagging support.

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This time around, a lot of attention is being paid to long-time Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida’s placement. While Abe wants him to keep a key post in the Cabinet to strengthen party unity, Kishida’s supporters want him to take on a more important post in the LDP to improve his own political prospects, such as serving as chairman of either the Policy Research Council or the General Council. At this juncture, Kishida himself appears willing to stay in the Cabinet and support Abe.

But his support of Abe – which could limit his ability to take political initiative – is likely conditional on Abe’s treatment of members of Kishida’s faction. Of the 46-person faction, Mitsuhiro Miyakoshi and Naokazu Takemoto are now considered eligible to become ministers (as they have been elected to the lower house seven times).

The Cabinet reshuffle is critical to Abe and the LDP, but also to Kishida and his faction’s ability to shape the future of Japan’s policy.