Despite Trouble, Kishida Will Likely Last Until Sept. 2024 LDP Presidency Election
I’ve got to retract the word “soon,” in the headline of my last post “Unpopular Kishida Could Be On Way Out Soon.” Experts on Japanese politics have said that the most likely option is that Kishida will last until the next election for the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) President in September 2024, but it will be hard for him to hold on afterward. A political reporter at a Japanese newspaper told a colleague of mine: “The question of Kishida’s demise is not if but when.” In my haste to get something out, I failed to exercise my usual due diligence in consulting experts on matters above my pay grade. I won’t make that mistake again, since there are so many others to choose from.
Tobias Harris wrote on his Observing Japan blog, “To be sure, I do not necessarily agree with Richard Katz that Kishida’s exit is imminent. The LDP bosses would prefer not to have to remove a prime minister — which does the party no favors — and no one seems prepared to launch a coup to unseat him, a la Katō Kōichi versus Mori in 2000. But Kishida’s margin for error is shrinking, and if he cannot improve his numbers to a point at which he can call a snap election and claim a new mandate, the prospects for another three-year term as LDP president look grim. It is hard to believe that the LDP would simply reelect him without a serious leadership contest.”
In a note to clients of Teneo, a corporate consulting firm, James Brady wrote that Kishida’s latest poll numbers “almost always signal the end for an LDP prime minister, as media reporting has highlighted... And yet, Kishida continues to defy political gravity and looks set to continue in office unchallenged, at least until next September. One key reason is that there is no widespread sense of crisis within the party regarding the stability of the government or the party’s electoral outlook. Support rates for the Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP) and other opposition parties have barely changed, with disenchanted LDP supporters instead opting for ‘none of the above.’ The next national election could be as far away as the Upper House vote scheduled for summer 2025 (the current Lower House mandate is valid through to fall 2025). As such, the LDP faces no real pressure from the opposition, and the electoral calendar means that it can take time to stabilize and win back voters.”
So far, notes Brady, party barons in leading factions are content to leave Kishida as Prime Minister for now. Some of them “continue to lay the groundwork for an eventual challenger to Kishida to emerge, but this will take time.” There is not yet a viable alternative.
Brady concluded that Kishida has one chance to retain the LDP Presidency past next September, the “hope that as his economic policy agenda feeds through to households in early 2024, his poll numbers will gradually recover to a level that would allow him to call a snap general election by the summer and regain momentum within the ruling party before the September leadership vote.”
But a lasting recovery from such low approval rates has no precedent. When I asked Brady about this, he told me, “I think Kishida is basically safe through to the presidential election in September, but I wouldn’t want to make a call on what happens after that.” He added that, “I wouldn’t be optimistic that Kishida has it in his power to turn things around.” Still, he added, if the general political and economic environment improves [because of external circumstances], he could get a boost.
Behind the Falling Approval Ratings
While the Kishida story is important, what’s even more important is the growing disenchantment of voters with all the parties. While LDP support is down to as low as 19%, support for the leading opposition party, the Constitutional Democrats, is in single digits.
The reasons for falling support for the LDP were summarized in this piece on polling by the Yomiuri. “Regarding the government’s economic measures focused on addressing high prices, 66% said they did not appreciate the measures, while only 23% expressed approval. As for the proposed flat tax reduction of ¥40,000 in income tax, 29% approved, but 61% did not. The main reason for disapproval, cited by 44%, was that it seemed like a tactic to draw votes for an upcoming election. Additionally, only 18% believed that the economic measures would lead to wage increases at companies, while 74% did not think so.” There have been several financial scandals involving Cabinet officials in the last few months, three of whom have resigned.
More Fundamental Impact
While Kishida’s fate and the identity of his eventual replacement are important, there are more fundamental impacts to consider.
In the last decade or so, such across-the-board disenchantment has led to lower and lower turnout levels, allowing the LDP to win handily by default. In short, those upset with the LDP opt to stay home. A good chuck of non-voters are not gripped by apathy; on the contrary, studies show a high interest in issues. They don’t vote because they don’t trust any party. The exception that proves the rule came in 2009 when the voters ousted the LDP—a political earthquake no one had predicted a couple of years earlier. The turnout rate was a very high 69%. In 2012, when the LDP returned to power in what appeared to be a landslide, it received two million fewer votes than it had garnered in its 2009 drubbing. In ensuing elections, turnout has kept on falling. In fact, the four lowest turnout rates in the past few decades have all come in the elections since 2012.
The opposition Democratic Party of Japan triumphed in 2009 because it captured the imagination and hope of the independent “floating” voters. To my mind, the key question in Japanese politics is “if and when” the opposition can do so again, or whether a Koizumi-like figure could again emerge inside the LDP. It’s certainly not happening now.
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