Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Wednesday found himself in a familiar spot, with a majority of lawmakers casting their votes for him as prime minister just as they did on Oct. 4.
As was the case early last month, Kishida also formed a new Cabinet, albeit with only one change following former Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi’s appointment to the post of Liberal Democratic Party secretary-general.
While on the surface Wednesday’s special legislative session to re-elect the prime minister might have appeared to be purely ceremonial, one aspect was clearly different from last month: Kishida is now on much more solid footing within the party after he pulled the LDP through what was projected to be a difficult Lower House election.
Going forward, Kishida will look to take advantage of his newfound momentum to forge ahead with a pressing political agenda. That includes formulating an economic stimulus package, passing a supplementary budget and implementing his administration’s COVID-19 measures to guard against another surge of cases over the winter.
In a further boost to his position, the LDP and Komeito reached an agreement over proposed ￥100,000 handouts for children age 18 and under, with Komeito acquiescing to the LDP’s demand to limit the handouts to children from households making under ￥9.6 million annually.
Nevertheless, the prime minister is not entirely in the clear and still faces a series of challenges. He still needs to lead the party to victory in next year’s Upper House election. Additionally, Kishida will need to keep a close eye on intraparty power dynamics, which may soon shift with former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe set to officially become the leader of the party’s largest faction. The prime minister’s longevity hinges on not provoking party heavyweights, such as Abe, who could rally their factions against Kishida in the event the prime minister faces headwinds.
“The basic stance of the Kishida Cabinet, as the prime minister has said, is to listen carefully to the voices of the people and to implement policies with a sense of speed in order to respond to their concerns about the coronavirus, their hopes for economic revival and their sense of crisis about increasingly severe international affairs,” with China and North Korea apparently in mind, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said Wednesday morning at a news briefing.
In the Lower House on Wednesday afternoon, Kishida earned 297 votes for prime minister while outgoing Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan leader Yukio Edano received 108 votes. In the Upper House vote, the prime minister received 141 votes and Edano earned 60.
Kishida’s tenure got off to a rocky start. Shortly after taking office, a poll by NHK showed his Cabinet’s approval rating at 49%, 13 percentage points lower than that of his predecessor Yoshihide Suga when he assumed power.
After topping public favorite Taro Kono in the LDP’s September leadership contest, analysts doubted whether Kishida could expand support heading into the House of Representatives election.
With experience including a tenure as the country’s longest-serving foreign minister and a stint as the LDP’s policy council chairman, Kishida’s resume was solid. Still, he lacked the kind of charisma that could charm the public in the way Kono had — a weakness even Kishida acknowledges.
As the Oct. 31 election approached, the media made dire predictions for the LDP, with some saying the ruling coalition might barely cling to a simple majority of 233. Kishida set a simple majority for the coalition as a threshold for victory in an effort to lower expectations in case the LDP was defeated badly.
In the end, the outcome of the election was significantly better than many predicted. The LDP not only surpassed the threshold for a simple majority but the party also reached an “absolute stable majority” of 261 seats by itself. That allows the LDP to run the Diet, Japan’s parliament, smoothly by chairing all standing committees and having its lawmakers make up the majority of the committees’ members. Together with Komeito, the ruling coalition obtained 293 seats in total.
Although Kishida appeared downcast and humbled the day after the election, the surprise result was more than enough to silence his critics. With momentum on his side, the prime minister has now shifted his attention to some of his signature policy items.
In a flurry of announcements last week, Kishida said his administration would put forward COVID-19 countermeasures in the first half of this month, compile an economic package by the middle of the month and pass a supplementary budget by the end of the year.
On Tuesday, Matsuno revealed that the administration would launch three councils: One will be dedicated to reducing the regional and urban gap in digitalization, another will be focused on the promotion of digital, regulatory and administrative reforms and the third will aim to create a new model for the country’s social and welfare system.
Under the council on social welfare, Matsuno said there would be a separate committee with the goal of raising incomes for nurses and those caring for the elderly and children, one of Kishida’s key campaign promises.
To some extent, Kishida cleared the first hurdle Wednesday with the LDP and Komeito coming to an agreement on cash handouts for children.
The LDP’s campaign pledge for handouts deliberately omitted figures and limited qualified recipients to people in need, such as part-time workers. Komeito, on the other hand, vowed to distribute ¥100,000 per child, regardless of household income, for the sake of expediency. Critics who argue in favor of balancing Japan’s budget criticize the plan as pork-barrel politics. Both parties’ secretaries-general held meetings to hammer out the details.
“The ruling party’s policy is to build consensus with a sense of speed, so I think it was a good idea to aim for consensus at the secretary-general level from the beginning,” said Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi on Wednesday when he announced that the two parties had reached an agreement.
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