By-Election Blows to the LDP: Kishida’s Choices Going Forward

Politics

Three lower house seats went to opposition candidates in by-elections held on April 28. A veteran politics watcher sketches out three scenarios for Prime Minister Kishida Fumio and his ruling Liberal Democratic Party in the wake of these losses.

The Opposition Shows Its Strength

Three by-elections took place on April 28, 2024, to fill seats in the House of Representatives. Two of the seats, representing Tokyo district 15 and Nagasaki district 3, were vacated when members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party stepped down following criminal charges, and the LDP was unable to field a candidate in either of them. In Shimane district 1, whose seat had been empty since the death of LDP heavyweight Hosoda Hiroyuki in November 2023, the party backed Nishikori Norimasa, only to see him lose to the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan’s Kamei Akiko. The opposition CDP ended up taking all three seats in the day’s contests.

The Shimane election was a particularly harsh blow for the ruling party. Shimane had been the only prefecture in the country where the LDP had remained in command of all single-seat districts ever since the 1996 introduction of the electoral system featuring such districts alongside proportional representation bloc voting. But even this LDP stronghold fell to the opposition, despite the party’s selection of a seemingly solid candidate in Nishikori Norimasa, a former high-ranking official from the Ministry of Finance who hailed from the prefectural capital of Matsue. Indeed, early on in the campaigning prefectural officials from the party were voicing concerns about his viability due to the impact of the LDP kickbacks scandal—an impact that only grew more prominent as the election grew closer.

The LDP made considerable efforts to hold on to the Shimane seat, stationing Obuchi Yūko, chair of the party’s Election Strategy Committee, in the prefecture to handle campaigning. Prime Minister Kishida Fumio himself went to Shimane twice to campaign for the LDP candidate, but his speeches urging voters to bring about a “come from behind win” for the party came to naught. In the end, despite this being an election where Hosoda’s death should have worked in favor of the LDP candidate picked to replace him, just 57,897 votes went to Nishikori, falling far short of Kamei’s 82,691.

Scenario 1: Kishida Steps Down with No Way Forward

This Shimane defeat almost certainly dealt a serious psychological blow to the members of the LDP. The CDP, meanwhile, has been buoyed considerably by its three-for-three record in the April 28 by-elections. This disparity in the sentiments of the parties may have a bearing on their prospects going forward.

In September this year, the LDP is slated to hold its presidential election to coincide with the end of the current term for party head Kishida. For him to secure reelection and thereby prolong his prime ministerial administration, he will first need to dissolve the House of Representatives and call a general election, keeping the ruling coalition firmly in the majority.

Conditions look tougher for Kishida in the wake of the April triple loss of seats for his party, though. LDP members looking ahead to the general election with trepidation for their own fates are increasingly nervous about maintaining him as the face of their party. Junior coalition member Kōmeitō is also likely to bring pressure to bear. The prime minister could thus find himself unable to press ahead with dissolution of the lower house, leaving him with no path to the general election he needs to prove himself. Blocked in on all sides, he may end up pushed out of office himself.

This is the first potential scenario we may see unfold. It has been seen before, in September 2021, when then party head Suga Yoshihide—who had fumbled COVID-19 countermeasures—was unable to take part in the LDP presidential election, facing instead the disappointment of leaving the prime minister’s office. If matters unfold this way again, it is possible that Kishida will not wait until the end of his presidential term, choosing instead to step down as party chief and prime minister in late June, when the ordinary session of the Diet draws to a close. The LDP would need to swiftly pick a new president to step into the Kantei as well.

One Diet member close to the prime minister told me that when Kishida did not take the expected move of dissolving the lower house in June 2023, just after his successful hosting of the Hiroshima G7 summit, he told him, “In Japan, a prime minister has a great run if he makes it a thousand days in office. There have only been seven premiers to serve this long in the entire postwar era. There’s no sense in calling a snap election and taking the risk you won’t get reelected to lead the party if you can just make it through those thousand days”—around two years, nine months, in other words.

As of April 29, 2024, Kishida has been in office for 939 days. This places him ahead of Hashimoto Ryūtarō, who served for 932 days in 1996–98, and within striking distance of his own 1,000-day mark, which he will reach toward the end of June. If he achieves the “great run” at the top that his Diet compatriot spoke to him about, he may well determine that he has achieved what he set out to do, making his decision to step down that much easier at that point.

Unlike long-serving government bureaucrats, though, politicians have a poor sense for when to “step down bravely.” Prime ministers, in particular, seem to suffer from a form of self-hypnosis, telling themselves “if I don’t hang in here now, there’s no telling what could happen” and clinging to the office past the point of wisdom.

Scenario 2: Sailing Straight into the Funding Scandal Headwinds

A second possible scenario we may see involves the prime minister taking the fight straight to the opponent, so to speak, by dissolving the Diet and calling a general election despite the present focus on the LDP’s kickbacks scandal. This would be a step taken with one eye on the party presidential contest in September, and with only the end of the ordinary session left as a window for dissolving the Diet, would involve dissolution in June and an election in July this year.

Should this take place, Kishida is likely first to reshuffle his cabinet and appoint new members to the LDP’s leadership positions. The stated objective would be to present a fresh image for his administration going into the national contest, but the real aim is to push Motegi Toshimitsu out of the post of LDP secretary general. The feuding between Motegi and Kishida has become impossible to miss in the LDP’s moves to do away with its factions, its agreement to convene the Diet’s Deliberative Councils on Political Ethics, and its decisions on what punishments to mete out to members who failed to report kickbacks.

All this is borne out by Kishida’s April 23 appointment of Yamamoto Yūji—a former minister of agriculture, forestry, and fisheries, a fellow Waseda University graduate, and a close confidante to the prime minister—as director general of the LDP’s Treasury Bureau. Motegi had been angling to appoint someone from his own faction to this powerful position, viewed as controlling the purse strings for the entire party; Kishida, concerned that Motegi would be in position to move considerable amounts of money just before the by-elections, headed this off. Motegi is already eagerly planning for the post-Kishida period of the LDP, and has little incentive to support the prime minister any more at this point.

Moriyama Hiroshi, who now chairs the LDP’s General Council, is seen as a likely successor for Motegi in the key post of secretary general. Moriyama is known to maintain strong relations with party members like former Secretary General Nikai Toshihiro and former Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide. Having someone on the team who can communicate effectively with these powerful players, who have been considered to be “outside the mainstream” during the Kishida administration, would be helpful in terms of solidifying his grasp over the party as a whole. There are also rumors that the secretary general post will go next to Ishiba Shigeru, a popular politician often chosen in public opinion polls as an ideal future premier. But as soon as Kishida moves to oust Motegi from his spot, the party will be in an uproar, with little else on its members’ minds beyond jockeying for the upcoming presidential contest.

The question remains, of course, whether a prime minister like Kishida, whose support ratings have been consistently dismal, actually has the will to exercise his power to dissolve the Diet and call an election. On this subject, many LDP officers appear to be in agreement that Kishida has little interest in tossing his administration aside and putting matters before the electorate. The prime minister’s statement on April 4, when he announced the punishments for party members involved in the kickbacks scandal, appeared to bear this wait-and-see view out: “In the end, the people of Japan will be our final judges.”

One veteran lawmaker who is close to the prime minister offers this insight: “Kishida has in the past been seen as something like a dog with no bark—not even little sounds like a chihuahua—someone who just sits there quietly, a smile on his face. Recently, though, he’s begun striking out on his own, making all decisions for himself without taking anyone else’s advice on board. You can really sense his exuberance in taking this new tack.”

Even if Kishida does manage to dissolve the lower house, the results of the ensuing election could be tough for his party. Unlike by-elections, where local voters have a chance to register a protest vote, the prime minister probably believes that in a general election, when the nation’s voters as a whole must select the political parties that will run Japan, they will opt for the LDP. He will also be hoping that the fixed tax rebate of ¥40,000 per person, to be implemented in June, will provide a tailwind. But public trust in the Liberal Democrats is the lowest it has been in a decade, and the LDP-Kōmeitō coalition could well fail to secure a majority of lower house seats.

Should this happen, talk will arise of bringing Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Innovation Party) into the ruling coalition. Ishin’s leader, Baba Nobuyuki, stated in an August 2023 radio appearance: “After the next election, if it turns out that two parties aren’t enough to maintain an administration, that will open up room to consider various new options.” It bears noting, though, that in the Kansai area where Ishin is strongest, the party has been peeling seats away from Kōmeitō, a factor that would make placing these parties side by side in a coalition government extraordinarily difficult.

And no matter how hard the prime minister works to extend his hold on power through adjustments to the ruling coalition, an election defeat for the LDP that made this necessary would also bring calls from within his own party to replace him with someone new. It is not hard to imagine Kishida being forced out of office to take responsibility for poor electoral performance. The outcome here would be a chaotic situation within the LDP.

Scenario 3: An Ignominious End

A final scenario worth considering is one where Prime Minister Kishida fumbles his personnel decisions and fails to dissolve the Diet on his own terms, instead aimlessly holding on to the reins past the end of the ordinary session and stepping down in September at the end of his term as LDP president. The outcome here would be a lame duck administration and a miserable end to Kishida’s premiership. In this case, the revision of the Political Funds Control Act, a key focus of the Diet toward the end of the current session, will likely end up a half-hearted attempt.

The factions in the LDP that were at the center of the kickbacks scandal are classified as “other political organizations” and banned from accepting donations from corporations or other groups. In cases where the factions host fundraising parties, though, giving speeches and offering food and drink, they can claim them to be “paid events” of value to attendees. With this pretext, the party’s factions have long collected money from companies and organizations in the form of payments for party tickets—and, by keeping the actual costs of the gatherings to a minimum, have been able to keep nearly 90% of the funds thus collected, a level of profit that makes ticket fees little different from straightforward donations.

The whole system is malicious on two levels. These fundraising parties are “legal compliance evasion mechanisms” designed to soak up the corporate donations that the law bans. And when these funds are distributed via the factions to their members as kickbacks on the tickets they managed to sell, they are effectively laundered into money that can be used freely, with no legal restrictions whatsoever.

The ongoing efforts to revise the Political Funds Control Act need to close these loopholes once and for all, but the proposed revisions rushed out by the LDP ahead of the by-elections do not accomplish this. At the end of 2023, Prime Minister Kishida declared he would become like “a ball of fire” in his zeal to tackle needed reforms, but today he is subjected to catcalls in the Diet chamber from opposition politicians wondering whether he has already burned out. And none of the scenarios outlined above offer hope that Japan will see much in the way of productive politics.

(Originally written in Japanese. Banner photo: Prime Minister Kishida Fumio at the Kantei in Tokyo on April 25, 2024. © Jiji.)

LDP politics election Kishida Fumio CDPJ