Kishida’s Shaky Future: Navigating the LDP’s Uncertain Future

Will Kishida last? New polls show falling approval for the Japanese LDP Prime Minister. This closely mirrors the situation his predecessor Yoshihide Suga was in before him, ultimately leading to his resignation. While Kishida has made it clear that a new election is only due to take place in September 2024, how can potential risks and instabilities as a result of his dwindling support be mitigated by then and what can be envisioned for the future of EU-Japan relations?

After the exit of Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzō Abe was quickly followed by the exit of his successor Yoshihide Suga, is Fumio Kishida next to step down? Suga left office shortly after winning the mandate, mainly due to low approval ratings. Suga was prime minister for only one year, mostly continuing Abe’s politics. While he had hoped to add an amendment to article 9 of the constitution, he did not get the chance to push through with it before stepping down. Now Kishida is facing a similar drawback, with a recent Mainichi poll showing approval ratings for his leadership as the lowest since 1947, at only 16%. This could lead to another changing of the guard, while approval ratings for the LDP party itself remain below 30%, as low as in 2009 when the LDP lost the general election. The drop comes after unpopular tax cuts that are seen as a transparent attempt to boost approval before a hypothetical snap election and Kishida’s failing attempts to invigorate the Japanese economy. The plan would include a one-off tax cut of 40,000 JPY (around 249 EUR) per person, which 62% of the population has indicated not to approve of. The tax cuts are both seen as too little with costs of living rising, and as a political ploy to boost approval of the Kishida administration.  Overall, the low approval ratings do not seem very rosy for the LDP, as the last time the ratings were this low, the LDP lost the election

The most noteworthy response to the survey highlighted that 40% of those not approving of the cuts were instead preparing for the expected hike in taxes, with the disapproval of the Kishida government at a record 79%. The Kishida administration has stated to aspire to raise taxes in view of financing the rising defence spending. Having become an essential pillar in Japanese political changes in the last 20 years, Japan is currently increasing its defence spending for the 12th year in a row. However, tax hikes set to fund a higher military budget have now been cancelled. Furthermore, as multiple scandals have affected his administration, Kishida’s low grades from voters are also related to his cabinet. Factions within Kishida’s party have hidden funds from oversight for years, and Kishida has had to remove several ministers since it came to light.  Nevertheless, at 16% the LDP still enjoys the highest approval rating of all parties. Japan’s second largest party, the Constitutional Democratic Party, sits at 14%, up 5 points from earlier polling. Hence, while the LDP may be losing in popularity, the survey accentuated the absence of any real alternatives among the opposition parties. The LDP has enjoyed a very strong grip on Japanese politics since 1955. Yet, ever since the General election loss in 1993 its stronghold has been wavering. 

Kishida has already ruled out snap elections after the latest polls. Yet, the future of his leadership is precarious, given the prime minister’s nickname “zozei-megan”, meaning “four-eyed tax hiker”. Recent efforts to cut taxes have been seen more as an attempt to increase his own approval rates, before a possible snap election. Meanwhile, Kishida has been making big promises to stay on course, stating there will be no new elections until his term is up in September 2024 next year. In general pollings, the LDP has so far benefited from low turnout during elections. However, the latest low in approval rates and overall disappointment over new taxes may suggest that any election in the near future may turn out to be more gloomy for the LDP than before. With the resignation of his finance minister, Kenji Kanda, Kishida is facing a more difficult task in carrying out his agenda. Factions within the LDP have been accused of hiding income from fundraising efforts from regulators. This new scandal has weakened support for the Kishidas administration, while an upcoming legal action against the LDP is still looming. As such, the LDP would get little from calling an early election, and with Kishida’s claim to stay until elections in September, a new prime minister may be expected in late 2024. 

Implications for the EU

With this new poll Kishida has joined his predecessor Yoshida Suga in showcasing very low approval ratings. It is thus to be seen if he may decide to resign as Suga did, or would rather decide to stay on until the September 2024 elections, with the latter being the most likely scenario. The ramifications of a potential resignation would likely be felt both abroad and domestically. In Asia, Kishida has led Japan to extend its defence cooperation with both South Korea and the Philippines. He has also been seen as a more moderate leader compared to his predecessors. 

Compared to Abe, Kishida has been considered as a more moderate change in Japanese leadership. As a Prime Minister, Kishida has tried to foster closer cooperation with other Asian powers. Also beyond Asia many nations have become more open towards working with Japan since Kishida assumed power. South Korea has taken part in military exercises with Japan, though only with the US as a third member, and Japan has invested 198 billion USD in ASEAN countries. However, it lags behind the 203 billion USD investments by the US, exceeding China’s 106 billion USD. The waning approval rates are thus worrying those aspiring a more liberal Japanese foreign policy. 

Were Kishida to step down and not face re-election, the LDP would need to elect a new Prime Minister. While the US has built up a stable relationship with Japan over the years, the Japanese alliances with European partners are not (yet) as strongly embedded. Japan’s increased defence and development funding scheme includes the Global Combat Air Program (GCAP) shared between Japan, Italy and the UK. In light of Kishida’s current popularity drop following the tax changes and increased spending on defence, the GCAP program may face some challenges under a potential new administration. As examples like the Europa panzer and MBT-70 programmes from the last 50 years have illustrated, joint defence procurement programs are often prone to be dismissed amidst leadership changes.

Who’s next?

The upcoming September 2024 elections calls for two questions: Would the LDP still make up for a win, and if so, who would become their next prime minister? In the case of a loss for the LDP, the possible winner would likely be the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP). As the LDP continues to struggle in gaining voters’ approval, the CDP has seen a rise in support, up to 14%. Should the CDP overtake the LDP, the new Japanese prime minister could then become Kenta Izumi, the leader of the party since 2021. Izumi has been an opponent of amending article 9 of the constitution, but has claimed to not be against changing the constitution per se. Another aspect of a potential incoming CDP administration would be the possible change in priorities. For instance, the LDP has a large base in rural areas, which has led Japan to a more restrictive trade policy on rural goods. Rice, meats and other agricultural goods have been subject to import restrictions to support the LDP’s voters’ base. A new administration could upend this system and potentially open up opportunities for the EU (among other external partners) and trade on agricultural goods. Besides this, CDP policies are closely aligned with the LDP and Japanese outlooks, implying little change to overall Japanese external policies. 

The other option could well be the appointment of another prime minister within the LDP. The candidates then being Sanae Takaichi, from the Abe faction of the LDP; former environment minister Shinjiro Koizumi; and factionless LDP politician Noda Ishiba. Ishiba has been one of the first to openly talk about a potential Japanese change in leadership, while being factionless has given him some leverage. Unfortunately for Ishiba, he has failed to gain support from Diet politicians, and broad support is still outside his grasp. Sanae Takaichi is a rising figure within the LDP, as he enjoyed the support of the late prime minister Abe, coming in close behind Kishida in the last elections. However, as a member of Abe’s faction, her election bid could be tarnished by the unfolding scandals. Takaichi’s policies would be the closest to Abe’s, heavily focused on security issues. 

Altogether, Japan seems to be going through a tumultuous time, the recent political scandals and rising costs of living having driven the heightened disapproval of the current government. Kishida has had to replace many of his cabinet members, and the approval of his efforts are the lowest since 1947. Kishida’s attempts to gain support before a snap election have largely failed, and as such no election is to be expected before September 2024. While it is likely to see a new prime minister arise, it remains unclear whether the LDP could win another election. While the CDP is growing stronger, it will be up to the voters to decide about the next Japanese leadership and the fate of the LDP next fall. 

Author: Kasper Danielsen, EIAS Visiting Fellow

Photo Credits: Flickr – Republic of Korea, Kim Sun Joo for the Korea Culture and Information Service (KOCIS)