Prime Minister Kishida’s Trump Card: When to Call a Snap Election?

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Support is plummeting for Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, who is battling through problems surrounding the implementation of the digital “My Number” personal information system. Kishida began fueling speculation about a snap election for the House of Representatives in June before ultimately deciding against it; given his current difficulties, when might he play his “trump card” of calling a general election?

The Prime Minister’s Belief: Approval Will Eventually Rise Again

According to a Mainichi Shimbun poll conducted on July 22–23 this year, the approval rating for the administration of Prime Minister Kishida Fumio fell below the 30% mark, hitting a new low of 28 percent. This was a 5 point decrease from the June survey and the second consecutive month of declining cabinet support. Over that two-month period, support for the cabinet fell a total of 17 points.

Two days before these results became public, the prime minister reportedly met with Endō Toshiaki, chair of the Liberal Democratic Party’s General Council, in his office. There he said:

“Approval ratings go up and down. They will go up again sooner or later.”

These words could be interpreted as reassurance for himself or an assertion of political resolve. After all, Kishida has already “successfully” recovered in the polls before thanks to a sharp improvement following the G7 summit held in the prime minister’s hometown of Hiroshima in May.

Kishida’s 2023 Approval Ratings

According to sources close to the prime minister, Kishida had hoped that foreign visits undertaken in July would have a positive effect on his support, similar to that seen following the G7 summit. When the Japanese prime minister travels abroad, newspapers and TV stations provide extensive daily coverage, allowing him to take on the role of a global statesman. In July, Kishida participated in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, and continued on to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar.

However, while these visits were all diplomatically significant, the prime minister was unable to benefit. Heavy flooding in various parts of Japan naturally shifted media attention to the damage and highlighted the fact that the prime minister was absent. Kishida’s overseas visits were therefore a drag on support rather than a positive.

Shifting Blame Around the My Number Card Issue

Nevertheless, the key driving force of dissatisfaction with the prime minister after the Hiroshima summit is the confusion surrounding the My Number card. The My Number card is a unique nationally issued form of ID that stores personal information and is supposed to make interacting with public services easier. One after another, however, problems relating to the handling of personal information are being uncovered throughout Japan. The government’s own Personal Information Protection Commission has deemed the situation serious enough to initiate unprecedented on-site inspections of the Digital Agency using its powers under the 2016 My Number Act.

Although Kishida hastily announced that a comprehensive investigation would be completed by the end of fall 2023, the actions of digital affairs minister Kōno Tarō are striking, and complicate Kishida’s approach to the issue. Kōno is the flag-bearer for the My Number card and other digital reforms, but has so far avoided taking responsibility for the debacle.

In the administration of Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide, Kōno gained prominence by promoting vaccination against COVID-19. Kishida may have hoped Kōno would again use his “breakthrough” political powers to address the My Number system problems. Kōno has instead emphasized individual human error by architects and operators of the system and has refused to humble himself and admit any failures with its overall implementation. In fact, in one speech in June, the digital minister even shot back at opposition questions by saying: “Wasn’t it the Democratic Party of Japan administration that created the My Number system in the first place?”

All the while, there is a game of “blame shifting” going on behind the scenes. Prime Minister Kishida has left the work to Kōno and was conspicuously absent from the Diet’s closed session review of the issue. LDP Secretary General Motegi Toshimitsu also rarely mentions the My Number card issue. This attempt to shift the blame by prominent members of the administration and ruling party only adds to the public’s mistrust of the Kishida cabinet.

Given the current situation, LDP lawmakers have also began to wonder out loud whether Kishida fumbled the perfect opportunity to dissolve the House of Representatives immediately after his cabinet’s approval rating rose following the Hiroshima summit.

The Difficulty of a Postshuffle Dissolution

Kishida, too, is surely feeling a sense of political crisis and appears to be changing tack by reemphasizing his “ability to listen” that he pushed during his successful 2021 LDP presidential election. On July 21, he began a regional tour by visiting a facility for the disabled in Ashikaga, Tochigi Prefecture. He has also participated in roundtable meetings focused on his own preferred themes and policies, such as addressing the declining birthrate.

Another anticipated response to reclaim cabinet support is for Kishida to reshuffle the cabinet and top LDP executive positions. After the prime minister decided against dissolving the Diet in June, speculation shifted to a likely mid-September cabinet reshuffle and extraordinary Diet session, with both being followed by the dissolution of the House of Representatives and a general election.

However, it is not at all clear to what extent a cabinet reshuffle will lead to an increase in the approval rating and pave the way for Kishida to head to the polls with a modicum of popular support behind him.

The key focus of any reshuffle will be on whether Kōno remains in the cabinet. Replacing Kōno at this point would be a clear admission of the failure of the My Number card system. For Kishida, it will also mean that he will no longer have a “bulletproof” target to draw criticism surrounding the My Number card issue away from the prime minister and party leadership. Above all, if Kōno is displaced from the cabinet, the prime minister’s rival would be able to speak more freely and criticize Kishida. He could begin positioning himself to contest the next LDP presidential election slated for September 2024.

In terms of LDP executive appointments, what Kishida will do with Secretary General Motegi is also worthy of attention. Kishida is reportedly unhappy with Motegi’s handling of coordination with junior coalition partner Kōmeitō around electoral cooperation, which further compromises Kishida’s electoral prospects.

The political base for the Kishida administration is three major factions within the LDP: his own Kishida faction, the Asō faction headed by Deputy Prime Minister Asō Tarō, and Motegi’s own faction. Even if Motegi were to be placated with an appointment to a key cabinet position, he may still resent being moved on from the powerful post of secretary general, effectively the LDP’s second-in-charge. In addition, Motegi has also expressed a desire to become the next LDP president.

Kishida will need to be careful not to upset the balance of power within the party and precipitate multiple challenges to his leadership. Furthermore, it is by no means certain that a cabinet reshuffle will provide the prime minister with the momentum needed to confidently dissolve the Diet and consolidate his political fortunes.

Kishida’s Presidential Reelection Scenario Crumbling

Kishida’s own political survival depends on winning reelection to the party presidency in the 2024 LDP presidential election. Preferably, this would entail the prime minister winning a majority of votes and not having to contest a run-off election against a strong or popular alternative candidate.

Takeshita Wataru, former LDP secretary general, told me before his death that “unless it loses both a lower and upper house election, the LDP cannot justify removing the prime minister by electing a new LDP president.” Since Kishida knows this, his objective will be to achieve even a modest “win” in a House of Representatives election in the lead-up to the LDP elections to forestall any major challenge.

However, if any future cabinet reshuffle fails to precipitate a reversal in political support, Kishida might be out of options. One veteran LDP lawmaker told me that, “opinion polls indicate that the LDP may not be able to call a snap election before the presidential election next fall. If that happens, the complexion of the presidential election will dramatically change even if there is no strong desire to remove Kishida.” In other words, the race could be thrown wide open.

The Bill for Playing Politics with Dissolution

During the last Diet session, the prime minister made prominent use of his “trump card” of threatening to dissolve the Diet to constrain opposition parties. Although he decided against calling a snap election, in the final stages of the Diet session Kishida was able to easily pass legislation securing financial resources for increased defense spending and other measures without any major resistance. Immediately afterward, Kishida purportedly told his colleagues with an elated expression that “I made use to the fullest extent the prime minister’s exclusive privilege of deciding when to dissolve the Diet.”

The bill for playing games with the prime minister’s “exclusive privilege” and focusing on when to play the trump card might be coming due, however.

Diet members and Japan’s mass media take it for granted that the dissolution of the Diet is the exclusive prerogative of the prime minister. It is important to point out, however, that this is not explicitly stated anywhere in the Constitution or in legislation regulating the Diet. A straightforward reading of the Constitution simply suggests that, in principle, the House of Representatives should only be dissolved when the cabinet cannot gain the confidence of parliament in a vote, or at the very least, when there is an issue that really requires a vote of confidence from the people.

Regrettably, calling snap elections without a “justified cause” is now the norm in Japanese politics. It is likely a major factor accelerating the public’s disillusionment with politics that drives low voter turnout. Kishida should reflect on this when considering the timing of the next House of Representatives election.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, at right, speaks at the first meeting of the Headquarters for the Overall Review of My Number Information. Next to him is Minister for Digital Transformation Kōno Tarō. Taken at the Kantei on June 21, 2023. © Jiji.)

politics election Kishida Fumio My Number