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Business News/ News / Kishida Must Wish He’d Stayed in Washington

Kishida Must Wish He’d Stayed in Washington

Japan’s prime minister was wooed, feted and complimented during his state visit. He’ll get no such treatment back home.

Kishida Must Wish He’d Stayed in WashingtonPremium
Kishida Must Wish He’d Stayed in Washington

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s first remarks to the joint session of Congress were perhaps also his most heartfelt. 

“I never get such nice applause from the Japanese Diet," the premier laughed last week, as the ovation he received at his historic address, only the second by a Tokyo leader, rang in his ears. Kishida made friends in Washington, and will have left a good impression with his surprisingly personable speeches, filled with jokes about his childhood in the US watching The Flintstones. 

The premier must wish he could have stayed there, on a geopolitical circuit that praises him for moving his country closer to the US. The Japanese businessmen, pop stars and executives who serenaded him in DC don’t seem so keen to be seen with him back in Tokyo. 

At home, Kishida’s already been plunged back into the depressingly familiar: polling numbers near record lows, never-ending political scandals, and a public that is weary of him. And his inbox is packed. He must tackle a party nearing active rebellion against him, win a crucial upcoming by-election, and perhaps make a decision on whether to call a general election in a last-ditch attempt to extend his premiership. 

Absent such a bold move, the leader’s time is running short. In September, his term as head of the Liberal Democratic Party (and therefore prime minister) will expire. He can run again, but his low polling numbers mean he is likely to face significant competition. Thus far, Kishida has been saved by the fact that there have been no significant national elections. But with both upper and lower house votes that must be held by 2025, lawmakers nervously eying their own seats will be keen to go to the polls with a popular leader — and unlikely to endorse this premier for another three-year stint. 

A decisive date looms in an unlikely location: the Shimane No. 1 district, a region of some 250,000 people in one of Japan’s most sparsely populated prefectures. It’s one of three by-elections being held on April 28, the first major electoral test since news first broke of the funding scandal that has thrown the LDP into such disarray that it won’t even field candidates in two of the three races.

The Shimane poll will be a referendum on Kishida’s LDP. Defeat in a region ranked among the party’s safest seats(1) will convince many that it’s time to cut their losses, possibly leading to a movement to oust him even before September. But a convincing win might give the prime minister a chance to play his final card: calling a snap election at the end of the current Diet session in June. 

Despite local stocks enjoying recent record highs and the Bank of Japan so far successfully navigating the unwinding of unpopular negative rates, Kishida has struggled to turn domestic successes into support. That’s one reason he’s been looking for foreign-policy wins, such as his Washington trip or the Hail Mary pass of a briefly mooted summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. His US visit has pushed up his polling numbers, albeit from a record-low base. 

The prime minister raised eyebrows earlier this month when he said that “ultimately the people and the party members will judge" his responsibility for the funding scandal — remarks some took to mean a snap election was still a live possibility. But polls have largely been scathing: Some 78% of those asked by Japanese news wire Kyodo aren’t happy that Kishida himself has not been punished for the scandal, and 93% say it hasn’t been sufficiently investigated. Nonetheless, if he survives Shimane, and judges the sentiment won’t translate into a rout at a general election, he may try to pull the trigger. 

For that, he also needs sufficient party support. It seems just as likely that he’ll demur — or jump before he gets pushed. That would turn conversation instead to who will succeed him, speculation that’s been made all the more difficult by the collapse of the LDP factions, all but one of which has been dissolved in response to the funding scandal. 

Several of those long expected to contest a post-Kishida administration are now ineligible or sidelined, perhaps permanently. Many past contenders seem likely to run again in the hope that this vote will be different, including the popular-with-the-public (but not within the party) former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba and current Digital Minister Taro Kono, and the conservative Sanae Takaichi, the Minister of State for Economic Security. 

But one new name doing the rounds in Tokyo is that of Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa, hailed earlier this year by former prime minister and party bigwig Taro Aso as the LDP’s “new star(2)." Widely seen as a scandal-free safe pair of hands, she has been rising in public opinion polls — and would also have the electoral advantage of campaigning as the first female prime minister. 

Throughout his term in office (already among the 10th longest administration in postwar Japanese history, in a country where most leaders barely last two years), Kishida has displayed a talent for muddling through, despite all the while being engulfed in scandals. But time is running out and he has, at most, one more window to play his ultimate card. 

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

(1) The district had long been held by former Lower House speaker Hiroyuki Hosoda until his death last year. Even before that, his reputation was taking a beating from tabloid reports of sexual harassment and ties to the Unification Church.

(2) Aso made the remarks in a speech meant to be complimentary, but in classic style instead made the headlines due to a gaffe in which he insulted her looks.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Gearoid Reidy is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Japan and the Koreas. He previously led the breaking news team in North Asia, and was the Tokyo deputy bureau chief.

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Published: 19 Apr 2024, 01:49 AM IST
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