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The Missed Opportunity of Japan’s Kishida Fumio

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The Missed Opportunity of Japan’s Kishida Fumio

The Japanese leader missed his chance to hold a snap election and cement his power. Now his leadership of both party and country is in jeopardy.

The Missed Opportunity of Japan’s Kishida Fumio
Credit: Prime Minister’s Office of Japan

A year ago, a window of opportunity to hold a snap election opened for Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, which would have enabled him an opportunity to escape a declining approval rating and start fresh. 

Starting in March 2023, Kishida’s diplomatic achievements were bearing fruit. On March 16, Kishida invited the president of South Korea to Japan for the first time in 12 years. Kishida and President Yoon Suk-yeol agreed to restart “shuttle diplomacy,” where leaders of both nations would increase the frequency of contact. The “bromance” that Kishida and Yoon displayed during their late-night wining-and-dining was emblematic of the turnaround of the bilateral relationship, which had been in a deep freeze for the five years prior.

Less than a week after his display of rapprochement with South Korea, Kishida went to Ukraine, which was spun as a surprise visit. The prime minister’s trip to Ukraine was intended to demonstrate Japan’s solidarity with the war-torn country and its resolve to provide continuous support. The trip also made Kishida the first post-war prime minister to visit an active war zone.

The climax of Kishida’s diplomatic maneuvering came in May. On May 19-21, Ksihida hosted the G-7 summit in his native town of Hiroshima, the city where the first atomic bomb was dropped. Kishida pointedly invited other non-Western leaders, who were generally excluded from its past gatherings, to the summit. Kishida, intent on informing the world leaders of Hiroshima’s dreadful past, escorted them to the museum where the horrors of nuclear destruction were on full display.  

Although foreign affairs is not generally a topic that garners electoral support, polls showed that Kishida was repeating the political benefits at that point. As the Japanese leader geared up his diplomacy, his approval rating began to surpass the disapproval rating for the first time since the summer of 2022 – when Kishida experienced his first significant setbacks as a result of the Unification Church scandal and late Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s state funeral

The bump in the polls that was attributed to Kishida’s diplomatic blitz lasted until June, which made it extremely tempting for him to call a snap election. The largest opposition party, the Constitutional Democratic Party, was in shambles; Nippon Ishin was gaining momentum but still required time to slate candidates that would turn them into a genuine threat to Kishida’s party. In this context, his rising approval rating bequeathed Kishida a brief opportunity to emasculate the opposition and possibly grant him an electoral landslide. 

Kishida was unable to hide the looming possibility. He publicly stated he was “assessing the situation” with a smirk, following a reporter’s question on whether he was considering a snap election. Ultimately, Kishida made a decision not to hold a snap election last June. He may have assumed that a better situation would develop in the future. 

However, that never happened, and is becoming likely that it never will.

As a result of the revelation of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)’s slush fund scandal, which has been widely seen as an organized tax evasion scheme, the party is facing an increasingly resentful public that wants them to suffer electorally. Ample polling shows that plurality of the public wants the LDP to be ousted from power – never mind that the CDP may run the government, although the party approval rating of the alternative only remains in single digits. 

The public’s ire is even more directed toward Kishida, who is at the center of the scandal and represents the party that engendered it. According to a poll from NHK, Kishida’s approval rating was lower than that of the LDP, meaning that even their reliable constituents are showing disgust over the slush fund scandal. 

Kishida has been groping for a breakthrough by holding a snap election that will help him reinforce his grip on the party while depriving the opposition of its momentum. However, both the public’s opposition and internal party strife has constrained his options. Sensing the stiffening public mood, local LDP branch members are publicly demanding that Kishida step down from leadership and allow someone else to lead the party from this September, when Kishida’s term as LDP president expires. 

Kishida was forced to announce that there would be no snap election before the LDP presidential election, which revealed his waning power within the party and the fierce opposition from the rank and file, who believe that their current leader would prove a disadvantage at the polls.

Kishida’s potential rivals, such as former LDP Secretary-General Ishiba Shigeru and Economic Security Minister Takaichi Sanae are openly jockeying for his position. Also, former Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide – Kishida’s predecessor, who holds a grudge over his downfall as prime minister – is gearing up to become a kingmaker this coming September by rallying dissatisfied party members who have been distanced from the centers of power and throwing his weight at a potential challenger to Kishida. 

Even Kishida allies such as Aso Taro and Motegi Toshimitsu, whose factions formed the governing mainstream of the Kishida government, were disenchanted by the prime minister’s sudden dissolution of party factions without prior consultation.

Desperate to remain in power, Kishida may reshuffle his Cabinet by including his more popular rivals. His goal would be twofold: to halt the downward spiral in his polls, while placating a potential challenger. He may also forcefully embark on constitutional revision to appeal to the conservative base who perceive him as a closet liberal, not their true acolyte. A tax cut, expected to go into effect in June, may soften public criticisms for a moment, although it may be offset by bureaucratic technicalities that are burdening local officials and businesses. 

However, as consumer and energy prices continue to rise – a phenomenon that is hurting governments politically across the globe – and the fact that no drastic reform is underway to prevent future abuses in political funds, Kishida’s tactics aimed at short-term political gains are unlikely to bear fruit.

Kishida’s window of opportunity seems to have now shut, resulting both from his own doing and unforeseen events. The dramatic transformation of the Japanese leader’s electoral prospects – now reaching their nadir – shows how quickly such a window can close. Reflecting on his active role in the international arena a year ago, which was helping him electorally, Kishida must think that the early summer of 2023 was a lost opportunity.