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Commentary: How Kishida can avoid becoming another revolving-door prime minister



It is official: Former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida is set to become Japan’s next prime minister. His victory in the Liberal Democratic Party presidential race on Wednesday ended a monthlong whirlwind of backroom deal-making and political intrigue, with the final showdown essentially being a battle among Kishida and the three other opponents. In the end, it was his presence as the conventional LDP candidate that helped him prevail.


Naturally, the world is now wondering what Kishida’s premiership will mean for Japan. Can he deliver on his promises, like better management of the COVID-19 pandemic, building a stronger middle class by shifting away from neoliberal capitalism and strengthening Japan’s position as a key geopolitical player in the so-called age of the U.S.-China cold war? Or will he be just another revolving-door prime minister, especially after his predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, threw in the towel after spending just a year in office?


The answers to these questions depend on the LDP system that produced Kishida’s victory, the immediate challenges he faces, and the sources of power and tools he has available.


What the race revealed about the current state of the LDP

Without a doubt, Kishida won the party election because he represented the LDP’s most traditional and predictable candidate. He played by all the party rules to earn his shot as LDP president. He is a faction head, meaning he leads one of the party’s formal, institutionalized groups. He has refused to publicize his grievances against the party or its other members. Ultimately, the powers that be within the party rewarded him for this.


However, the race also revealed the myriad forces of tension within the LDP. There was the younger generation of parliamentarians who were willing to break from traditional voting blocs to satisfy their own interests. There were the pro-reform politicians who backed administrative reform minister and vaccine czar Taro Kono. Then there were those who followed former-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in rallying behind former internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi. Operating behind the scenes were LDP elites working to secure their own political futures by preserving the traditional ways of doing business inside the party.


Kishida must now manage all those political forces as the party’s head, but that task has always been difficult for the LDP president. It is one reason why the party has replaced its top leader an average of every 2½ years since 1955 — well below the four-year term for Lower House lawmakers.


To stabilize his position atop the government, Kishida has to reward his allies and either marginalize or placate his adversaries, all while ensuring that he can succeed in leading the party through some major, forthcoming political challenges.


Challenges ahead

Kishida’s ability to avoid becoming a revolving door prime minister will hinge upon how well he leads the LDP through two general elections.

The first is the Lower House election that will likely take place by mid-November. The LDP-Komeito ruling coalition currently enjoys a two-thirds majority in the Lower House, but the opposition will be doing its best to chip away at that supermajority.


Fortunately for Kishida, his administration should benefit from the brief honeymoon period enjoyed by most new prime ministers in Japan. With public opinion likely on his side for now, the COVID-19 state of emergency already lifted and a splintered opposition, Kishida may be able to maintain a supermajority in the Diet, or at least what is known as a “stable majority” that affords the LDP and Komeito ruling coalition extra committee appointments.


The bigger challenge for Kishida will be the Upper House election scheduled for summer 2022. Currently, the LDP and Komeito only command about 57% of seats in the Upper House, and they would like to bring that closer to the supermajority they enjoy in the Lower House. The question is how well Kishida can posture the coalition for an election over the course of his first year in office. If he falters, the LDP might once again seek to course correct, pushing Kishida through the revolving doors in favor of someone else.


To posture for those elections, Kishida is facing some critical near-term policy issues — none more important than finding a way to rebound Japan from the global pandemic. Suga’s inability to solve this riddle contributed to his downfall, and, if Kishida hopes to enjoy a different fate, he will have to figure out how to stimulate domestic spending, revitalize small and midsize enterprises, and safely open the borders for tourism, all while ensuring that COVID-19 cases do not trigger additional states of emergency.


Sources of power

One cannot know exactly how Kishida intends to address all these challenges, but it is possible to size up the sources of power and tools he has available.


Veteran political scholar Tomohito Shinoda identified six sources of power for Japan’s prime minister, the first being one’s power base within the party. The LDP presidential election may have demonstrated that Kishida was the party’s pick, but that could well mean that he was just the “least bad” option for many who voted for him. Kishida still hasn’t cemented his power base, meaning he will have to spend time and capital to carve out stronger intraparty alliances.


One advantage that Kishida has in the party is that his closest supporters and members of his faction have generally proven competent in positions of power and avoided scandals. In other words, Kishida has consistent, reliable support without having to atone for others’ mistakes. Not having to rescue his immediate supporters from political oblivion will spare political capital for dealing with other intra party challenges.


The second source of power lies in the prime minister’s ties with Japan’s traditionally strong bureaucracy. Kishida has only held a few Cabinet and sub-Cabinet postings in his time, but he did hold a meaningful leadership role over a bureaucratic organization for nearly five years. Kishida owns the record for being Japan’s longest-serving foreign minister, giving him plenty of experience with the National Security Council and the bureaucracy’s foreign policy and defense apparatus.


A challenge for Kishida is that he has been out of the Cabinet since 2017, meaning that a newer class of bureaucrats has risen among the ranks. Kishida will have to form new relationships with the government officials who will be tasked with implementing his policies and decisions.


The third source of power is ties with opposition parties. In his past roles as LDP deputy secretary-general and parliamentary affairs chief, Kishida has had to be the face for engagement with opposition parties. Given his even-temper and affability, Kishida probably did not foster much discontent in those interactions. But now that he is ultimately responsible for all LDP and government policies, the question is how much he will attempt to reach across the table. Importantly, Kishida did not burn any bridges along the way, leaving that option available if he needs it.


Next is personal popularity and public relations. Kishida was by no means the most popular candidate in the presidential race, but that does not mean that Kishida is unpopular. Rather, he has never dabbled in polarizing politics, which may have left him viewed as less dynamic and less confident than some of his peers. The unknown is whether Kishida will reveal more of his personality now that the spotlight is squarely on him. How the public will respond to that after the initial honeymoon period is uncertain.


The fifth source of power is support from the business community. Kishida comes from political stock — his father was also a bureaucrat in the powerful former Ministry of International Trade and Industry — but he started his career in business. He also spent his early years in parliament focused on economic policy issues, so the key for him now will be harnessing that in engagement with Japan’s powerful business interests.


The final source of power is international reputation. Having served as foreign minister for nearly five years from 2012 to 2017, Kishida is a known entity to governments across the globe. He always handled himself well abroad, avoiding missteps and unnecessary friction while still advocating well for Japan’s interests. Given his calm demeanor and stable approach to governance, many foreign governments will probably welcome dealing with him as prime minister over the more hawkish and untested Takaichi or the less predictable Kono.


Tools at his disposal

The first tool that Kishida has available to address these challenges is Cabinet appointments. When Kishida forms his Cabinet this coming week, he will have about 18 Cabinet postings and 52 sub-Cabinet postings to fill. This gives him the opportunity to reward allies, placate opponents and fulfill his end of the deals that helped him win the election. To manage intraparty challengers, he will have to choose those positions wisely.


The second tool available to Kishida is the ability to implement fresh policies. Unlike his predecessor, who was billed as the continuity candidate, Kishida can take bolder steps in the near term.


Those steps will be focused on matters that are more important domestically than abroad. After all, with two major national elections forthcoming, he needs to address the things that matter most to the Japanese public.


This means policies and legislation that deliver benefits to the Japanese electorate, which is probably why Kishida has already signaled an intent to increase pandemic-related subsidies and to take steps toward redistributing wealth and increasing wages to elevate more Japanese into the middle class. We should expect Kishida to roll out more of this Keynesian-style economic policy in the not-too-distant future.

As for the things foreign observers would be most interested in — trade policy, foreign policy and security — we should expect relative continuity in those areas until the two upcoming elections are over.


We should also remember that when Abe took office in 2012, his top priority was implementing an economic policy that would eventually become Abenomics. It was not until after the successful 2013 Upper House election that Abe started pursuing more controversial policy agenda items like reinterpretation of Article 9 of the Constitution.


Kishida is acutely aware of what can happen if he does not shore up his power atop the government before taking on personal policy agenda items.


All of that will make Kishida first focus on expanding his power, implementing policies that benefit the Japanese electorate and ensuring success in the upcoming elections. If the LDP performs strongly in those votes, we should see Kishida widen his policy window.


Failure to accomplish this, however, would likely see Kishida pushed out the door in favor of someone else.


Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He previously served in the Japanese government as a Mansfield fellow.


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