By Nishimura Keishi
The government of Kishida Fumio is sliding into disarray. What is causing this derailment?
“The Kishida government does not have someone like Suga, who as chief cabinet secretary wielded a strong influence in the Abe government,” analyses a mid-ranking lawmaker in the Liberal Democratic Party, who attributes the administration’s current debacle to the lack of unity within the Prime Minister’s Office [Kantei] and poor coordination.
On the state funeral for former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and the former Unification Church issue, the government response was piecemeal and slow. “The atmosphere of the Kantei is laid-back and people can talk openly and freely but there is no one with overwhelming authority,” says a person close to the prime minister. “This limits what it can do.”
Poor coordination and decision-making inside the Kishida government surfaced a year after it was launched. A senior government official says that the government can “dodge these problems to an extent if the economy recovers.” Though it prioritizes economic measures as a tool to turn around the situation, it is not taking concerted action.
On COVID-19 border controls, Kishida initially planned to announce the easing of the country’s daily arrival cap on Aug. 24. But the government shelved the idea as opinion within the Kantei was divided and some called for postponement. In September, the government again failed to make a firm decision. Swayed by growing calls from senior government officials inside the Kantei to “leverage the weak yen,” it decided to remove the daily arrival cap two weeks after raising it to 50,000.
The gasoline subsidy is another example. The government was making arrangements to lower its subsidy cap by 5 yen per month starting from November. But this met objections from inside the Kantei that “the step runs counter to measures to contain inflation.” It scrapped the plan right before its announcement. Decisions on controversial policies are overturned in no small part because of Kishida’s “ability to listen,” a political style that the premier cherishes. “The Kishida government pays too much attention to public opinion,” says a senior government official. “If public support continues to fall, the government will have a hard time moving to implement policies that it deems necessary.”
In his policy speech delivered at the opening of the extraordinary Diet session, Kishida announced a new program to contain rising electricity prices and designated it a priority policy. But some people inside the Kantei point out that the program appears to be “government pork,” expressing concerns that “once it is rolled out, he may lose control of the timing for an exit, as was the case with the gasoline subsidy program.
Now that Kishida has been in office for a year, the “ability to listen,” one of his strengths, has backfired on him. Public distrust of the premier deepens and his words are not being translated into action. Public support for the government is faltering because of his political stance. As unified local elections are scheduled for next spring, local assembly members, the bedrock of the LDP, will be affected if public support stays on a downward trend. “If the government continues to be grilled by the opposition camp in the Diet, complaints from inside the party will intensify,” says an influential party member. “These complaints will grow even stronger as the unified local elections approach.” Some people inside the party speculate that Kishida may have to choose to dissolve the Diet at some point to recoup his political fortunes, but the majority view in the LDP is that the party won’t win if the Diet is dissolved now for a snap election.” There appears to be no good solution for the government to bounce back.