When the ordinary session of Japan’s parliament convenes in a few weeks, Fumio Kishida will have served as the nation’s prime minister for just a little over three months.
During that time, he led the Liberal Democratic Party through a Lower House election, managed a series of pandemic-related issues and passed the largest supplemental budget in Japan’s history. His public opinion ratings are holding steady at respectable levels and his swift response to the omicron variant bought him some credit with the Japanese public.
Still, Kishida’s long-term position atop the government is by no means assured. The path ahead for him this year will not be easy and he has major obstacles to overcome if he hopes to enjoy greater success than his predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, who bowed out within a year of taking office.
What should we expect for Kishida in 2022? To make sense of the political landscape going forward, there are four fundamental points to understand.
First, the recent LDP presidential election and Lower House election demonstrated traditional political machines in action. In the LDP presidential race in October, the party picked Kishida, not because he was the most popular candidate among the electorate (that was Taro Kono) and not because he was the most ideologically aligned with the LDP’s biggest factions (that was Sanae Takaichi). Instead, the party picked Kishida because he was the one who best conformed to the party system.
Kishida is a faction head who waited for his turn in power and he happened to be pitted against two reform-oriented candidates and one without any factional affiliation. What ended up happening was that the LDP proved once again that the house always wins. That is, the traditional intraparty system for producing the LDP president operated the way it fundamentally always has.
This is important for Kishida, because it means that the party that produced him can just as easily replace him if he has not built up enough political capital to keep his intraparty opponents at bay.
Meanwhile, the Lower House election demonstrated the ruling coalition’s traditional vote-getting machines in action. Despite the LDP-Komeito-led government’s struggles to combat the pandemic and revitalize the economy, the two parties were able to mobilize their support bases and prevent major losses. Their effort produced enough votes to ensure a stable majority in the Lower House — that is, control of the house, all the committee chair positions and most of the seats in the committees.
This bodes well for the ruling coalition as it looks toward the Upper House election that will be held on or about July 24. Barring a colossal failure by the Kishida administration, the opposition parties will have to excite enough of the electorate to overcome the coalition’s systemic advantages.
This will be an uphill battle for the opposition. The Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan is attempting to rebrand itself with the election of Kenta Izumi as its new president, but it has much work to do after suffering some notable losses in the last election. The Japan Communist Party was able to mobilize and fund a huge number of candidates, but it suffered among the worst success rates of any of the parties in terms of actually securing seats.
The notable exception to this was Nippon Ishin no Kai, which will look to capitalize on its notable Lower House gains. However, the party still has soul searching to do as it tries to decide whether it wants to become a viable nationwide alternative to the LDP or if it is content with its regional power base. If it seeks to expand, Nippon Ishin no Kai will run into firmly entrenched LDP and Komeito vote-generating apparatuses, just the same as the other opposition parties.
The second point to understand is that the Lower House election gave Kishida a small boost that enabled him to make some political moves. Kishida has obstacles ahead of him, but the Lower House election placed him in a decent position to overcome them. The election result was about as perfect an outcome that Kishida could have hoped for in that the LDP maintained a stable majority but lost enough seats for him to argue that the public wants change from the old ways of doing business.
Further, key LDP players were toppled, allowing Kishida to make some moves of his own. The most important pillar to fall was then-Secretary General Akira Amari. Amari’s defeat in his single-seat district enabled Kishida to replace this close ally of Shinzo Abe and Taro Aso with the more independent Toshimitsu Motegi and to elevate his own ally, Yoshimasa Hayashi, to the foreign minister position that Motegi left vacant.
The third point is that despite the boost that Kishida enjoyed, the sharks are still beginning to circle inside the LDP. We must remember that the average tenure for an LDP party president is only two and half years — even shorter if you remove the outliers like Shinzo Abe, Junichiro Koizumi, Yasuhiro Nakasone and Eisaku Sato — and Kishida has a major election coming up next summer.
Meanwhile, others are positioning themselves to assert their own influence. Shinzo Abe has taken over as the head of the LDP’s largest faction. Taro Aso may have found himself in a pre-retirement position as the LDP vice president, but he is not ready to give up his influence or authority yet, ensuring that it was his own brother-in-law that took over the powerful minister of finance billet inside Kishida’s Cabinet.
Meanwhile, Sanae Takaichi has been asserting herself much more than any recent Policy Research Council chairperson, to include Kishida when he served in the role. She is using the extra boost she gained from finishing second in the LDP race to push her policy agenda. Meanwhile, although she publicly affirmed her support for Kishida as long as he is prime minister, Takaichi added that she intends to take over when he is done.
Then there is Motegi, who is now best positioned to be the next prime minister. He has served in every major position inside the government except for chief Cabinet secretary, took over the LDP’s third largest faction and is now serving as the secretary-general. Motegi is holding some strong cards, but he will have to temper any political moves against the fact that he owns a share of the responsibility for what happens with the Kishida administration — particularly with the Upper House election. In other words, Motegi’s success is Kishida’s success, and Kishida’s failure is in part Motegi’s failure.
Finally, with the exception of certain initiatives, we should expect Kishida to be a party man until at least the upcoming Upper House election. What that means is that his policies will reflect the LDP’s platform more than his own personal preferences. To champion his own policy agenda, he will have to wait and see how much political capital he has after the next Upper House election.
Given this, we should expect Japan to stay on its current trajectory for at least the next eight months, especially in the realms of diplomacy and security. Kishida will continue to play tough on China while supporting Taiwan. He will work to bolster ties with the United States while expanding relationships with other so-called middle power nations. He will also vocalize support for debate on constitutional amendment. In short, what we have seen for the past few years is what lies ahead at least until the summer.
The exception to this will be economic policy, though any reforms will still be tempered. Kishida has already begun championing his “New Capitalism” policies in pushing for higher wages and the massive stimulus package he advocated for reflects his preference for Keynesian economics. How far and how fast he can go will be challenged by those other sharks in the water — namely Abe and Takaichi — until he can secure himself more political capital to be able to push back against them.
After the Upper House election, we will see a Cabinet reshuffle and we could see a change in assertiveness from Kishida. If the ruling coalition gains seats or retains about the same number, Kishida will be able to depart further from the LDP policy line. The more seats they lose, he will become increasingly beholden to the party. If the coalition loses a majority and they end up with what is known as a “twisted Diet” — that is, the coalition only controls one house of the parliament — the political landscape may reveal an LDP search for a new prime minister.
Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He previously served in the Japanese government as a Mansfield fellow.
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