By NAOYA YOSHINO, Nikkei political editor
TOKYO — Two months after the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s sweeping victory in Japan’s upper house election, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is experiencing firsthand how quickly political fortunes can turn.
Kishida’s cabinet approval rating fell 14 percentage points to 43% in the latest monthly Nikkei/TV Tokyo poll, largely over his plan to hold a state funeral for former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, as well as his handling of the controversy surrounding the Unification Church’s ties to the LDP.
But the drop in the poll, conducted Friday to Sunday, also offers Kishida incentive to make stronger policy moves.
Even those in the LDP question why his approval rating previously was so strong, around 60%. Japanese prime ministers typically are most popular at the start of their tenure. But Kishida’s approval rose as high as 66% in May, about seven months into his term, despite a lack of eye-catching achievements. He also had punted controversial decisions until after the upper house race.
Among those who approved of Kishida’s cabinet in the latest poll, the largest portion said it was because they considered him trustworthy. In some ways, this is an extremely valuable trait in a leader. But it is difficult to maintain, given how quickly public opinion can shift.
Kishida lacks the kind of devoted base that was enjoyed by Abe or former U.S. presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Loyal supporters kept Abe’s approval from sinking below 38% during his second stint in office, which lasted for seven years and eight months.
Fanatic supporters help shore up a leader’s approval ratings. But they also risk sowing division, since tightknit groups can become exclusionary.
Generally, approval ratings suffer after leaders make controversial policy decisions or become embroiled in scandal.
In the first case, decreases are usually fleeting. Abe’s approval dropped 11 points to 38% in a July 2015 poll, conducted shortly after the lower house passed national security legislation enabling Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense. The figure recovered to 46% the following month.
Scandals tend to have a more lasting impact. Abe’s approval sank 14 points to 42% after his government in March 2018 was reported to have falsified documents over a land deal involving Moritomo Gakuen, a school operator with ties to Abe. His approval did not top 50% for the next three months.
Kishida’s current headwinds fall more into the second camp, as Abe’s assassination spotlighted ties between LDP members and the Unification Church. This suggests his approval rating will not recover easily.
Still, from crisis comes opportunity.
The upper house victory blunted the LDP’s response to the Unification Church issue, while Kishida failed to provide a sufficient explanation to the public on why he wants a state funeral for Abe. His government needs to reflect on how it fell short in these areas.
Though the LDP has vowed to cut all ties to the Unification Church, 78% of respondents in the recent poll did not think it could do so. The party should take note that words alone will not satisfy the public.
A decline in ratings could trigger policy shifts. Kishida has ordered the government to consider construction of cutting-edge nuclear reactors — which 53% of the poll’s respondents supported — and plans to ease COVID-19 border restrictions, such as by scrapping the daily cap on arrivals — which 63% supported.
Kishida until recently enjoyed strong approval without having to take on controversial policies. But if lower approval ratings push the prime minister toward more decisive action, he could find a silver lining.
Kishida faces myriad challenges, from combating inflation and mapping out Japan’s long-term energy strategy to bolstering defensive capabilities in response to tensions in the Taiwan Strait. Bold policy is the only way for the leader to move forward without a dedicated support base.