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Japanese PM Kishida’s struggle for political survival

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida during a speech in parliament.

Image Source : Wikimedia Commons

by Professor Purnendra Jain and Takeshi Kobayash

First Published in: Dec.20,2023

Jan.05, 2024

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) are facing one of the worst financial scandals in decades, resulting in growing public distrust of the party and threatening the stability of his government. The Kishida government, which took office in October 2021, was already facing headwinds as its cabinet’s popularity declined due to concerns about the economy, social security and the LDP’s links to the Unification Church. The assassination of former prime minister Shinzo Abe in 2022 during an election campaign further complicates matters. The assailant claimed that Abe supported the Unification Church, which he said caused his family’s bankruptcy and forced his mother into making donations. Many other LDP parliamentarians are known supporters of the Church. Kishida and the LDP are yet to be transparent about this issue. Despite falling popularity, the LDP’s approval ratings hovered in the 30s between October and November 2023. Analysts suggested that, despite his low popularity, Kishida would continue and that there were no imminent threats to his prime ministership. That scenario changed dramatically at the close of November 2023. One poll suggests that Kishida’s cabinet approval rate has plummeted to 17 per cent, marking the lowest prime ministerial approval rating since the LDP regained power in 2012. The drop in popularity occurred after it was revealed that LDP factions and the individual parliamentarians associated with them had failed to report all revenues from ticket sales at fundraising events. The slush fund, estimated to be millions of dollars, was used for political purposes, violating the Public Funds Control Law. The Public Prosecutors Office has launched investigations into the LDP’s largest and most influential faction, the Seiwakai, commonly referred to as the Abe faction. Reports suggest that four other major factions, including the one led by Kishida, might also be implicated. Kishida has replaced four key cabinet ministers from the Abe faction. The position of Chief Cabinet Secretary — which serves as the face of the government — has gone to Yoshimasa Hayashi. Kishida had removed Hayashi from his position as foreign minister and, facing difficulty in persuading other colleagues to assume the Chief Cabinet Secretary position, Kishida opted for Hayashi, a member of his own faction. The other three ministerial positions went to factions led by Taro Aso, Toshimitsu Motegi and Hiroshi Moriyama. The cabinet reshuffle does not address the core problem — money politics. Money politics remains endemic in Japan’s political system, despite past reforms. In the 1970s, former prime minister Kakuei Tanaka resigned due to a bribery scandal. Following Tanaka’s resignation, the LDP sought to regain public trust by turning to ‘Mr Clean’, former prime minister Takeo Miki. But it was not long before another large-scale financial scandal — the Recruit Scandal — emerged in the late 1980s. The scandal led to former prime minister Noboru Takeshita’s resignation, his secretary’s suicide and the resignation of many high-profile politicians. Takeshita’s successor, former prime minister Sosuke Uno, resigned within months following revelations of sexual misconduct. Amid the scandals, the LDP called in another Mr Clean, former prime minister Toshiki Kaifu. But the LDP’s troubles persisted. The 1993 Sagawa Kyubin financial scandal resulted in the arrest and subsequent imprisonment of LDP ‘strongman’ Shin Kanemaru on tax evasion charges. These scandals ultimately led to the LDP’s electoral defeat in 1993, marking what was supposed to be a new era in Japanese politics. But opposition parties have struggled to win government and sustain it. The LDP regained power within two years of its 1993 defeat. Similarly, the LDP returned to government within three years by defeating the Democratic Party of Japan in 2012. Even during the Abe administration, reports of financial scandals emerged. But Abe’s strong popularity allowed him to survive. The current fundraising scandal and its scale are still unfolding. More resignations are likely. Many details regarding the unlawful accumulation of political funds remain unknown. The Public Prosecutors Office may shed light on the scandal after its investigation. Regardless of the outcome of the investigation, Kishida’s position appears untenable. Though not directly implicated like Tanaka, Takeshita and Uno in the past, the public expects Kishida, as President of the LDP, to own up to the rot in the party and step down. Despite the reshuffle of his cabinet and his statement committing to spearhead reforms in the LDP, it will be a political miracle if he survives this scandal ahead of the LDP presidential election in September 2024. The LDP and its Prime Minister face a choice. They can follow the same path as their predecessors by temporarily presenting a ‘clean’ face and then reverting back to business as usual. Alternatively, the new generation of LDP politicians can challenge the established path and set a different course for the party, one that is policy-focused, transparent, less factional and not hereditary. But it remains uncertain whether the new generation of LDP politicians is inclined to take on this challenge. The opposition parties remain weak, fragmented and unable to replace the LDP. Yet they play a crucial role in keeping the LDP government accountable. Without the Japanese Communist Party’s scrutiny, the present fundraising scandal might never have come to light.

First published in :

East Asia Forum


Professor Purnendra Jain and Takeshi Kobayash

Purnendra Jain is Emeritus Professor in the Department of Asian Studies at the University of Adelaide in Australia. His main research has focused on contemporary Japanese politics and foreign policy. He has also researched and written extensively on Japan-India, Japan-South Asia relations, Australia-Asia relations; regionalism and regional institutions; energy and foreign aid issues, comparative studies of the politics and foreign policy of Japan, China and India. His research results have been published in such journals as Asian Survey, Pacific Review, International Relations of the Asia Pacific, Japan Forum, Japanese Studies, Leviathan, Global Asia, Australian Journal of International Affairs, Asian Journal of Comparative Politics, etc. His most recent book is Japan's Foreign Policy in the Twenty-first Century (co-edited with Lam Peng Er) (2020; paperback 2022). 

Takeshi Kobayashi holds a Master’s degree in International Relations from the American University, Cairo and is an LDP member and a former staffer to a House of Councillors member. 


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