By Tanaka Issei and Nagahara Shingo
At 1:30 p.m. on June 16, Prime Minister Kishida Fumio (president of the Liberal Democratic Party) left the Prime Minister’s Office [Kantei] for the Lower House Members’ Building next door to visit former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo. They held talks on issues ranging from the Upper House election to increasing defense spending and the selection of a vice minister for defense.
The incumbent vice minister is Shimada Kazuhisa, who had worked as a secretary to Abe for six and half years when he was prime minister and still maintains close ties with him. Abe had learned that the government was considering making Shimada leave the post and he was not happy about it.
“That has been already decided,” Kishida told Abe, who hoped Shimada would continue to stay in the post. The premier explained to Abe that Shimada has been in the post for two years and procedures for the personnel change were already underway.
A delicate balance between Kishida and Abe surfaced during the tug-of-war involving the drafting of the government’s “big-boned” basic policy on economic and fiscal management.
On the morning of June 6, Kishida phoned LDP Policy Research Council Chairperson Takaichi Sanae and asked her to come to his office immediately. Takaichi hesitated for a moment, but Kishida had taken a forceful tone.
When Takaichi entered the prime minister’s executive office, Kishida told her, “I’m not going to delete the wording ‘based on the 2021 basic policy on economic and fiscal management’ and that’s that.”
The 2021 basic policy stipulates the continuation of spending reform efforts and effectively calls for upholding fiscal integrity, which Kishida has long advocated. Pro-spending lawmakers within the LDP strongly objected to the “based on the 2021 basic policy” phrase because they claimed it was a rejection of “Abenomics” and had been demanding that it be deleted.
Takaichi works for Kishida, but she is an advocate of aggressive government spending and her political tenets are close to Abe’s. Kishida’s discontent was directed not only at Takaichi but also at Abe.
“We have a sitting prime minister, so the former prime minister should refrain from making any influential remarks,” a senior government official said bluntly.
If Kishida and Abe wage a head-to-head battle and make even one wrong move, it could develop into a power struggle that would be detrimental to the LDP right before the Upper House election. Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Kihara Seiji, a close aide to Kishida, and Kihara Minoru, who works for Takaichi as the head of the secretariat of the Policy Council and has a good relationship with Abe, also met on the weekend [before the release of the latest basic policy] and held behind-the-scenes consultations.
In the end, the tug of war was resolved when Kishida accepted a compromise proposal to add a sentence that acknowledged flexible fiscal spending. A lawmaker close to Abe recalls, “It was on the verge of becoming a political crisis.”
The Kishida faction (Kochikai) is the fourth largest group in the LDP. In the formulation of his first cabinet, Kishida gave more consideration to other factions and decided not to tap senior members of his faction, such as Hayashi Yoshimasa, who later became minister of foreign affairs, Lower House Budget Committee Chairman Nemoto Takumi, and former Minister of Defense Onodera Itsunori, for cabinet posts. At the time, he told them, “I would like to ask you to wait for cabinet posts until the Upper House election is over.”
For Kishida, the Upper House election will be an opportunity for him to take full control of personnel appointments and policymaking.
Simmering discontent among conservatives
There has been lingering tension between Kishida and Abe, who leads the party’s largest Abe faction (Seiwa Seisaku Kenkyukai), for some time. Even after Kishida came into office in October, Abe continued to assert his opinions in public on matters such as a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Games and raising defense spending before Kishida had made decisions on them.
Abe told the people around him, “Kishida only pitches low so I need to pitch high.” He knew that right after the launch of the Kishida Cabinet, discontent was growing among conservative members and supporters. It appears that he thinks it will benefit the party overall if he becomes more vocal. But the Kishida side sees this as pressure from Abe.
Kishida plays it safe
Kishida takes to heart the failure of his predecessor Suga Yoshihide, who had a weak support base within the party due to his lack of factional affiliation. Suga had 70% of public support right after he took office, but he gave priority to combating COVID-19 and opted not to dissolve the Diet for a snap election. His support rate fell to around 30% within less than a year and he was forced to step down.
What Kishida has in mind is gaining a free hand in the selection of cabinet appointees and policymaking by winning the Upper House election while public support is high and building a solid base within the party. This is the real motive behind his message on waiting until the end of the Upper House election.
Up until now, Kishida has played it safe in the political arena so he can make it to the Upper House race without hitting any snags. Unlike Suga, who addressed controversial issues that split public opinion in two, such as deciding to discharge treated water from Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant into the ocean, Kishida’s actions lack speed.
What Kishida was focused on was combating COVID-19. He constantly monitored the daily nationwide booster vaccination rates with the aim of “increasing the rate to 60% and the highest among the G7 nations before the Upper House election.” Early this month, the rate exceeded 60%. On April 14, he became irritated about the high infection rates in Okinawa, where the booster vaccination rate is low. Though he rarely loses his temper, he angrily told Minister of Health, Labor and Welfare Goto Shigeyuki and others in charge of the pandemic to “do whatever needs to be done.”
Public support for the Kishida government reached 68.9% in a joint survey that Sankei Shimbun and Fuji News Network conducted in May despite the deterioration of his ties with the Komeito Party and other sources of concern.
Last month, Abe told one of his peers, “Kishida is lucky.” A junior member close to Suga says that Kishida’s “support stays high because he avoids difficult issues,” but his support rate is rising just as he had hoped.
Shifting to combat mode
“When it comes to the details, there are many things that need to be addressed, but overall there aren’t any major problems.” On April 4, LDP Vice-President Aso Taro said when he met with Kishida in the reception room of the LDP president. Kishida nodded, and Secretary-General Motegi Toshimitsu, who was also present, said approvingly, “Indeed there are no particular concerns.” This means Kishida is also on track to receive support from Aso and Motegi, who lead the party’s second and third largest factions, respectively.
At an LDP board meeting held on June 6, Kishida emphasized that “there are lots of things being said on the side of the opposition camp because they’re focused solely on the political situation.” One participant says, “Kishida has moved into combat mode.”
Nonetheless, few Kantei executives are optimistic about Kishida’s handling of politics in the post-election landscape even if he clinches a victory. One reason is that the drafting of budgets for fiscal 2023 will begin at that point. Abe is demanding a substantial increase in defense spending, whereas Kishida wants to focus on economic measures that facilitate wealth distribution and clean energy strategies. A close aide to Kishida predicts that “a storm is brewing.” (Slightly abridged)