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Commentary: What’s behind the key appointments in Kishida’s new ‘unity Cabinet’

BY MICHAEL MACARTHUR BOSACK
CONTRIBUTING WRITER

 

PYEONGTAEK, SOUTH KOREA – Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Wednesday unveiled his first major Cabinet reshuffle as leader of the Liberal Democratic Party. The announcement also represents the first Cabinet shakeup since the death of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in July.

 

Abe’s assassination last month has completely changed the political landscape inside the LDP, and with two election victories and the political vacuum resulting from Abe’s death, Kishida could have exploited the situation to elevate his intraparty allies and marginalize his rivals.

 

The reshuffle could have radically altered the power dynamics of the ruling party, but that is not how it ultimately played out and instead Kishida went with a surprisingly traditional approach to the latest Cabinet appointments.

 

In doing so, the prime minister appears to have played it safe, which has implications for what observers should expect from the government over the next year. To understand this, it’s necessary to analyze three key components of the Cabinet reshuffle: the timing, the factional politics and the major moves.

 

The timing

 

A Cabinet reshuffle presents an opportunity for the prime minister to accomplish a few key tasks. The first is managing public opinion, since Cabinet reshuffles can potentially result in a boost of up to 10 percentage points in terms of approval ratings. The second is to manage internal politics, as Cabinet postings offer rewards to allies and options for placating potential adversaries inside the party. Finally, they offer the prime minister a chance to address potential policy issues within the Cabinet.

 

In general, Cabinet reshuffles occur about once a year. That means there were three potential windows for this recent reshuffle: in August, next month before the autumn extraordinary session of parliament or in December at the end of the extraordinary session. We now know which option Kishida selected, but the key question is why.

 

While there are practical reasons for doing the reshuffle now, the political rationale is more compelling and the decision was likely a play to staunch the bleeding from the rapid drop in Kishida’s public approval ratings.

 

Recent polls from Kyodo and NHK showed Kishida’s approval rating astonishingly dropping by more than 12 points in a single month following the LDP’s Upper House election victory. This can primarily be put down to the revelation of the LDP’s ties to the cult-like Unification Church that has been embroiled in Abe’s assassination. Kishida declared that a prerequisite for Cabinet appointees in this reshuffle is that they had to consent to an audit of any ties — however tangential or dated — they may have had to the Unification Church.

 

Another factor that could have influenced the timing right now is the fact that the LDP’s largest faction is without a leader. Abe’s faction is currently being run by a council of politicians who have not been able to figure out who will take over. The size of the faction would afford substantial power and influence to the faction head, meaning that political in-fighting to win the leadership could have caused internal unrest in the party. The sooner Kishida unveiled the Cabinet reshuffle, the less time for those internal battles to materialize. Closer examination of the factional politics within the party can provide an insight into how Kishida managed this issue.

 

Factional politics

 

One of the key indicators in analyzing Cabinet reshuffles is looking at the intraparty factional divisions. Within the LDP are six formal factions and, traditionally, Cabinet appointments are based on the faction’s size relative to the party. The key indicator is how far a prime minister deviates from the proportions. In other words, a prime minister may choose to put more allies from their own faction into Cabinet, or they may choose to punish rivals by keeping members from adversaries’ factions out of the executive lineup.

 

Looking at the factional breakdown of the Cabinet after the reshuffle, Kishida went strictly with proportional appointments. In other words, the Abe faction is the largest, so it got the most postings, then the Motegi faction and so on. Even the Moriyama faction earned a senior posting, and that group has been teetering on the brink of extinction.

 

In Japanese political parlance, this is what we call a “unity Cabinet.” Kishida has essentially followed the party’s unwritten internal rules for Cabinet appointments in a bid to ensure that the party remains unified amid the political challenges it faces. Every faction gets what it must accept as a fair share of the prominent appointments and is therefore obligated to cooperate with the administration.

 

Major moves

 

The use of factional proportionality to dole out appointments was not the only indicator that Kishida has tried to play it safe with this reshuffle — the major moves also reflect this.

 

Indeed, the “new” Cabinet is not very new at all, with all but nine having served as Cabinet ministers before. Five are staying on in their current roles, including Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, and two returnees picked up positions they have held before. For example, Katsunobu Kato is taking over as Minister of Health, Labor and Welfare for the third time.

 

The appointment of so many veteran ministers is a safe move for a Japanese leader. Of course, the main reason is experience — not just experience handling a major government portfolio or leading a ministry, but in fielding questions from the press or during parliamentary interpellations. Gaffes and failures to articulate policies are two surefire ways to erode public confidence and can be avoided by bringing veterans into the executive.

 

Another benefit of reusing ministers with experience is because these individuals have all survived the scrutiny that new appointees face when they first join the Cabinet. The domestic tabloids usually accumulate dirt on lawmakers, usually waiting until those politicians receive a prominent posting before running stories on the subject. If someone has survived the first salvo of muckraking, the party is usually confident that they will be safe next time around.

 

With these three points in mind, the Cabinet reshuffle also delivered a few takeaways worth noting.

 

New capitalism’ takes a hit

 

This Cabinet reshuffle signaled that Kishida’s “new capitalism” is going to face some major hurdles going forward. Shunichi Suzuki, brother-in-law of LDP heavyweight Taro Aso, returns as the finance minister; close Abe-aide Koichi Hagiuda took over as the LDP’s Policy Research Council chairperson; and “Abenomics”-alum Yasutoshi Nishimura has become minister of the economy. None of those three have expressed support for Kishida’s economic platform, and all are in a position to veto new laws or policies that the prime minister may try to institute. What this means is that observers who have been waiting for “new capitalism” to take root will likely have to wait a while longer.

 

A steady hand for defense

 

The Kishida administration is seeking to publish new security documents this year, including a new national security strategy and soon-to-be-renamed national defense program guidelines. With Nobuo Kishi’s health issues and problematic ties to the Unification Church, Kishida needed a replacement who would be competent enough to articulate the administration’s security policies and manage the country’s defense efforts amid growing tensions in the region.

 

Yasukazu Hamada is well-versed in defense matters and brings additional benefits to the administration. Hamada has been involved in Japanese security issues for the better part of the past two decades, and he maintains good relations across the political spectrum inside the LDP. Hamada’s personal connections with prominent LDP lawmakers such as Shigeru Ishiba and Hayashi is important because Hamada can help corral potential detractors while working closely with fellow Cabinet officials.

 

Co-opting public approval

 

After shunting Taro Kono off to a relatively minor posting managing the party’s public relations in forming his first Cabinet, Kishida has decided to restore him to a ministerial position in managing the country’s digital transformation. This is a smart play for Kishida who can put Kono’s reform-minded efforts to good use while also co-opting Kono’s strong public approval and personal following. Since this reshuffle is largely aimed at staunching the bleeding from the Unification Church scandal, bringing Kono into the Cabinet is a sure-fire way to buy some goodwill from the public.

 

Friends close, enemies closer

 

The most surprising move of the Cabinet reshuffle was Kishida’s decision to bring Sanae Takaichi into the Cabinet as the economic security minister. Kishida had several reasons to shift her out of positions of leadership: Takaichi’s policy views do not tend to align with Kishida; she has been vocal about her intent to succeed Kishida as prime minister; and she lost her patron in the wake of Abe’s death. Based on these factors, Kishida could have pushed Takaichi out of the Cabinet and let her fade outside the public eye.

 

But this may be a case of Kishida wanting to keep his friends close and enemies closer. With Takaichi holding a Cabinet position, she is obligated to a level of complicity with the administration. But given the limited reach of her new portfolio, Takaichi has a short leash on how far she can push her own policy ideas.

 

Another factor here is Takaichi’s gender. Kishida’s Cabinet is woefully short on women, with only two female appointees out of more than 20 senior postings. Thus, Kishida may have weighed the options and decided to fall back on the old adage that the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.

 

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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