Commentary: How Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida got his groove back
Although Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s approval ratings were abysmal following Abe’s assassination, he might still be able to redeem himself and call for a snap election, says Bloomberg Opinion columnist Gearoid Reidy.
TOKYO: It turns out it might be worth remembering his name after all.
The international scorn over how rapidly Japan changes leaders had led some to wonder if it was worth even bothering to take note of Fumio Kishida. After all, his predecessor lasted less than a year on the job.
Kishida's premiership started positively enough in late 2021. But it all began to unravel when political opponents and the media seized on the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s ties to the Unification Church following the killing of former leader Shinzo Abe last July.
The story dominated the headlines and sidelined Kishida’s agenda for months, sending his approval ratings into a tailspin, despite his lack of personal involvement. Insiders openly questioned whether the prime minister was actually interested in remaining in power, having seemingly done little to play the game of thrones.
But in recent months, something unusual seems to be happening in Japanese politics: A comeback story. Having weathered the scandal and polling ratings that typically bring the knives out for unpopular LDP leaders, Kishida has re-emerged with a flurry of diplomatic activity that has him back in control. His support rate has recovered to the levels before Abe’s killing, while a stronger-than-expected performance in by-elections last month bolstered his internal support.
Talk that next week’s Group of Seven summit would be his swansong has now turned instead to the possibility he could capitalise on a successful meeting by calling a snap election shortly afterwards.
He’s taken a page or two out of Abe’s playbook. The late leader became a master of sticking it out through scandals, relying on internal support - and a lack of alternatives - to wait until the media ran out of material. While Kishida doesn’t have Abe’s control of the party, he’s been aided by the fact that the Abe faction, the LDP’s largest grouping, remains in disarray and has yet to choose a new leader.
Fortune has favoured him in other ways. Kishida’s strengths lie in international diplomacy, and he took power in a post-COVID world at a time when he could shine.
A visit to Kyiv in March contrasted well with Xi Jinping meeting Vladimir Putin at the same time. This month, he courted the Global South with a multi-stage visit to Africa, the first for a Japanese leader in nearly a decade.
Thanks largely to the Biden administration’s increasingly tough stance on China, Tokyo is gaining global relevance as Washington seeks allies to contain Beijing’s rise - a multi-pronged strategy espoused by Abe. US pressure was also a likely factor in the outreach from South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, who has sought to repair ties strained for years.
That has enabled Kishida to get good press for hosting his counterpart in Tokyo and, in a quick turnaround, reciprocating that visit this week in Seoul. After Yoon’s trip to Washington last month, President Joe Biden can paint a picture of an alliance on China’s doorstep, one in which Japan features front and centre. That Kishida, in effect, let Seoul blink first in seeking to mend relations also helps at home, where the public is weary of demands for wartime apologies.
Domestically, things are going Kishida’s way, too. On Monday (May 8), the country drew a line under the pandemic by downgrading coronavirus to the same status as seasonal influenza, ending most COVID-era measures. The return of throngs of foreign tourists will help boost parts of the economy and stabilize the yen, contributing to a sense of an economic pickup even if its actual impact is limited.
The premier’s quick return to the campaign trail last month following a failed assassination attempt made him look like leadership material. The left-field choice of governor for the Bank of Japan - one that, if mishandled, had the potential to roil the economy - has so far paid off, with Kazuo Ueda toeing the line on easy money.
People like leaders when they’re seen to do something. After a year squandered on his fuzzy and ill-thought-out New Capitalism economic measures, Kishida’s decision to increase spending to boost defence and combat the falling birthrate seems to have hit home - even if he hasn’t yet outlined the details or, more importantly, where the money will come from. As discussions around those plans advance, the harsh reality that they’ll likely involve higher taxes might weigh on his popularity.
That gives the prime minister a window to call for a snap election, even though a vote isn’t required until 2025. Japanese leaders typically choose the most politically convenient time to refresh their mandate, and after Biden and other world leaders assemble in Kishida’s native constituency of Hiroshima next week, speculation is rife that he may do just that.
A strong performance would pave the way for him to walk through next year’s leadership race for the ruling party and set him up to become one of the country’s longest-serving leaders of recent decades.
Kishida has denied he’s considering dissolving parliament, though such assurances are worth little. What might be more useful in evaluating his options is the fate of his predecessor, Yoshihide Suga. He, too, had a chance to call an election after replacing Abe, with his popularity high and COVID-19 at the time largely contained. He demurred, and the moment never returned.
Despite his accomplishments in office, many didn’t stop to remember Suga’s name. The incumbent can still avoid that fate.