Japanese Politics in 2024: Election Likely to Follow Kishida’s Last StandPolitics
Prime Minister Kishida Fumio’s public approval rating was already deep in the danger zone when the ruling Liberal Democratic Party was hit by allegations of systematic financial misconduct, in what some have called the biggest political scandal since the Recruit affair of the late 1980s. With confidence in the government plunging to new lows, the LDP must find a fresh face to lead it into the next House of Representatives election. But negotiating the shift is more complicated than it sounds. Below, we look at the challenges confronting Kishida, the LDP, and Japanese politics in 2024.
A Very Japanese Scandal
The political funds scandal broke in late November, amid media reports that the Tokyo District Public Prosecutor’s Office was investigating complaints of financial misreporting against several factions of the Liberal Democratic Party. At the center of the story was the LDP’s largest faction, the Seiwa Seisaku Kenkyūkai, still commonly referred to as the Abe faction (after its former leader, the late Abe Shinzō). It was alleged that the faction had systematically underreported income from fundraising parties and distributed the undeclared income to faction members for their own discretionary use. An estimated ¥500 million is thought to have been diverted into these slush funds over a five-year period beginning in 2018. (Anything earlier falls outside the statute of limitations for such offenses.)
In deference to the Abe faction’s numbers and clout, Kishida had tapped members of the group for key positions in the government and the ruling party. However, by mid-December, he was obliged to remove them from those posts amid reports that each had received millions of yen in kickbacks. On December 14, just after the close of last autumn’s extraordinary Diet session, Kishida accepted the resignation of four cabinet members, including Chief Cabinet Secretary Matsuno Hirokazu and Minister of Economy, Trade, and Industry Nishimura Yasutoshi. Also stepping down were three LDP executives: Policy Research Council Chair Hagiuda Kōichi, Diet Affairs Committee Chair Takagi Tsuyoshi, and House of Councillors Secretary-General Sekō Hiroshige. Five state ministers were replaced as well.
Although the prime minister himself is not implicated at this point, the scandal and resulting purge have put his leadership in serious jeopardy. The backing of the Abe faction has been critical to the Kishida cabinet, keeping the party united behind the administration despite low public approval ratings. Now, with the faction fuming over its exclusion from the corridors of power, this critical support has evaporated, even as Kishida’s popularity plunges to new lows.
Dark Days for Kishida
Public disappointment and frustration with Kishida’s leadership have been mounting for some time now. The cabinet’s lackluster approval rating climbed to around 38% in the first half of 2023 (according to a May Jiji poll) before falling sharply again. The prime minister’s relatively clean image was tarnished when his son, hired as his political secretary, had to be fired for “inappropriate behavior.” Then came the chaos surrounding the government’s glitch-plagued effort to boost the distribution and use of My Number ID smartcards by eliminating separate health insurance cards.
Hoping to reverse his slide in the polls, Kishida reshuffled his cabinet and replaced a few party officials last September, but the anticipated bounce failed to materialize. The voters scoffed at his October announcement of a temporary ¥40,000-per-person income tax cut, dismissing it as a desperate pitch for support (especially in light of his recent argument for tax increases to fund a surge in defense spending). By this point, it seemed clear that the public had permanently soured on Kishida Fumio.
A tone-deaf response to the brewing funds scandal cannot have helped. The figures at the heart of the allegations were doggedly unapologetic. Day after day the public was treated to footage of Chief Cabinet Secretary Matsuno declining to answer questions from the press and the opposition parties, while other implicated officials vowed to “carry on with their duties,” as if the allegations were no more than a distraction. When the uproar could no longer be ignored, Kishida made a grandiose pledge to become a “ball of fire” spearheading the campaign to “restore the people’s faith in the LDP.” But he offered no concrete ideas for reform. In a Jiji opinion poll released on December 14 (conducted December 8–11), voter support for the cabinet had sunk to a dismal 17%.
An Unlikely Crusader for Reform
Looking ahead, there is no telling how far the scandal will spread, since the allegations and investigation are not limited to the Abe faction. Kishida’s latest cabinet and party appointments were a hasty stopgap; further revelations could necessitate more reshuffling between now and late January, when the Diet reconvenes. Once the Diet begins deliberating the budget for fiscal year 2024, the opposition parties’ will resume their relentless grilling of Kishida. Unless he responds with a convincing reform plan, including measures to address the systemic problem of LDP factional politics, the government could find itself paralyzed.
The two top items on the reform agenda must be amendment of the Political Funds Control Act to enhance transparency and a thorough revamping of the LDP’s code of ethics, including the dissolution of the party’s deeply entrenched, institutionalized factions. Unfortunately, the LDP has a rather poor track record when it comes to political reform. In the wake of the Recruit shares-for-favors scandal, the party came under intense pressure to address the roots of such corruption through reform of the electoral system and political funding. In 1991, the LDP cabinet of Prime Minister Kaifu Toshiki submitted three critical reform bills, which were to headline that year’s ordinary Diet session. But the legislation died in committee as a result of fierce resistance from Kaifu’s own LDP.(*1) It seems unlikely that Kishida will prove more successful.
Previous LDP prime ministers have made a point of stepping down as faction chief during their time in the nation’s top office to distance themselves (however superficially) from the patronage and machinations associated with factional politics. Kishida chose to remain as chairman of his faction, attending many of its meetings. On December 7, he announced that he was stepping down and leaving the group, but at this late date, that decision looks more expedient than principled.
Kishida will doubtless try to position himself as a champion of reform as the scandal takes center stage in the Diet. But he has little credibility as a crusader against factional politics. Moreover, he lacks the leadership to rally the LDP behind a meaningful revision of the Political Funds Control Act. The party is no longer behind him.
A Question of Timing
All of this naturally calls into question the longevity of the Kishida cabinet going forward. The prevailing view within the LDP is that Kishida is not the person to lead the party into a general election (see below). Kishida’s current term as LDP president ends in late September, when a party election is scheduled to be held, but he could be forced to step down sooner.
Ishiba Shigeru, one of the leading contenders to succeed Kishida, has called on the prime minister to resign as soon as the Diet passes the budget, sometime before the end of March. Other potential candidates have been more circumspect. With the ruling party embroiled in scandal, the coming ordinary session of the Diet will be extraordinarily challenging. After passage of the fiscal budget, amendment of the Political Funds Control Act must necessarily top the legislative agenda. But uniting the LDP behind meaningful reform could be next to impossible, and even if the government manages to put together a bill acceptable to the ruling party, it faces weeks of contentious deliberations in the second half of the Diet session. From the standpoint of the LDP’s leaders in waiting, it might make better sense to leave the dirty work to Kishida.
Upcoming Political Events
|End of March
|Deadline for enactment of FY 2023 budget (tentative)
|G7 Summit in Italy
|Campaigning for Tokyo gubernatorial election starts (election on July 7)
|End of June?
|End of ordinary Diet session
|Prime Minister Kishida’s tenure as LDP leader ends
One option would be for Kishida to announce his resignation when the Diet’s ordinary session closes in June and move the LDP election up from September. This would allow the prime minister to make a grand exit after attending the Group of Seven summit in Italy (June 13–15). The only problem is that the LDP, which is accustomed to having its leadership election treated as a major national event (since it determines who will be prime minister), might object to sharing the spotlight with the Tokyo gubernatorial election, scheduled for July 7.
The other option is to wait until Kishida’s term ends in September. Much could change between now and then, but most observers agree that the prime minister is unlikely to seek a second term.
Given the current controversy, the factions will probably refrain from endorsing specific candidates. The major contenders are likely to be popular, relatively independent figures that can sell themselves as agents of change. The most frequently mentioned candidates are Ishiba, former Environment Minister Koizumi Shinjirō (both nonaligned), and Digital Transformation Minister Kōno Tarō (an independent-minded member of the Asō faction with a relatively broad base of support in the party).
Once the LDP president is elected, an extraordinary session of the Diet will be held to nominate the prime minister by majority vote, and the new leader will form a cabinet. A general election could follow soon thereafter.
Technically, the next House of Representatives election need not be held until October 2025, when the current members’ terms expire. But a House of Councillors election is on the calendar for the summer of 2025, and pushing the lower house election past 2024 would most likely mean a double election, something party insiders have ruled out. A double election would be inconvenient for Kōmeitō, the LDP’s junior coalition partner, which wants to focus its resources on the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election around the same time. It would also put the LDP at risk for a double setback.
The new prime minister will probably opt to dissolve the lower house during the traditional “honeymoon period,” before the inevitable decline in public support. To secure a solid majority, the embattled LDP will rely heavily on Kōmeitō, to mobilize its base (followers of the Sōka Gakkai religious movement). But there are signs that Kōmeitō’s legendary electoral machine is faltering.
Fortunately for the LDP, the opposition does not pose much of a threat. The number one opposition party, the center-left Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, is still struggling to rebuild, with support rates languishing in the single digits. Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party), the second-largest opposition party, lost much of its early momentum due to a series of scandals. Moreover, the two parties are too far apart ideologically to even discuss electoral cooperation. Their rivalry can only continue to benefit the ruling coalition by dividing the anti-LDP vote.
In short, while the LDP is alarmed about the spreading scandal and its electoral impact, it has no fear of being forced from power, given the fragmented state of the opposition. As one party veteran admits, “There’s no sense of urgency in the LDP because the opposition is in such a shambles.” Without that sense of urgency, substantive action on political reform is unlikely. And inaction can only erode public confidence further.
(Originally written in Japanese. Banner photo: Prime Minister Kishida Fumio bows to reporters following a briefing at the Prime Minister’s Official Residence on December 14, 2023, following the resignation of four cabinet members in connection with a political funds scandal. © Jiji.)
(*1) ^ The failure of Kaifu’s reform bills is widely viewed as a prelude to the LDP’s historic electoral defeat in July 1993. Subsequently, an anti-LDP coalition cabinet (the first non-LDP government since the party’s formation in 1955) was able to pass a major package of political reform legislation, including new restrictions on political funding and electoral reform centered on a combination of single-seat districts and proportional representation in the lower house.—Ed.