Pro-Biden, Anti-China Fumio Kishida Falls Flat In By-Elections; Japan PM’s Approval Ratings ‘Lowest Ever’

By: Dr. Amlan Dutta

In what is being seen as a major blow to Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and his political future, Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) lost all three seats in the crucial by-elections held on April 28 in the seats of Shimane District No. 1, Nagasaki District No. 3 and Tokyo District No. 15.

In fact, such has been the fallout from the slush fund scandal, which has rocked Japanese politics since November 2023, that the LDP did not even bother to field any candidate in the Nagasaki and Tokyo seats because of the apparent low support for the LDP and the public angst against it.

Even Shimane District No. 1, considered for long to be an LDP bastion by virtue of being a conservative stronghold, saw the LDP candidate bite the dust. Here, the LDP’s Norimasa Nishikori, a former Finance Ministry official, lost against the principal opposition party, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan’s (CDPJ) Akiko Kamei.

By giving up on the other two seats, Kishida had put the LDP’s focus on defending the Shimane seat, which was facilitated by the death of the former LDP House Speaker Hiroyuki Hosoda.

Incidentally, Hosoda, too, was named in the slush fund scandal.  On April 24, Kishida had told an Upper House Budget Committee meeting that the voters in the by-elections would evaluate his “attitude towards politics.” He had also extensively campaigned in Shimane on April 27 in support of the LDP candidate.

Exit polls on April 28 by the national broadcaster NHK, Kyodo News Agency, and other media outlets showed the margin of defeat for the LDP to be very severe. Japan’s leading newspaper, The Asahi Shimbun, has called the April 28 by-elections “A Dark Day for LDP” as it lost the only seat it had contested.

The LDP Secretary General Toshimitsu Motegi called the results “extremely severe” while talking to the reporters in Tokyo and said, “We humbly accept the severe results and we will do our utmost to regain the trust from the public as we continue our effort to reform and tackle the challenges.”

Kenta Izumi, the main opposition leader and the face of the CDPJ since 2021, linked the by-elections to the issue of the slush fund scandal and the need for political reforms in Japan.

Talking to reporters, he said, “There are many voters across the country who also want to show (similar) views.” Izumi was hinting at the possibility of early national elections. The CDPJ won all three seats in the by-elections.

The slush fund scandal involved LDP’s largest and most influential faction, the Abe faction members, who allegedly did not report a certain amount of funds raised from LDP’s fundraising parties and used them to pay for their unofficial expenses. An estimated 970 million yen (US$6.5 million) is the figure given by prosecutors over a five-year period from 2018 to 2023.

In January 2024, 10 people, including 3 LDP lawmakers from the Abe faction, were indicted by the public prosecutors for receiving more than 30 million yen (US$200,000) each in unreported income.

Also, staffers and accountants of the Kishida faction were also found to be hands in gloves in the scandal. As a result, public trust in Kishida and the LDP in general has eroded rapidly, and Kishida has been struggling hard to overcome the stigma associated with the scandal.

On 29 February, Kishida became the first sitting Japanese Prime Minister to apologize to the Diet’s House of Representatives Political Ethics Committee. In terms of pure numbers, the fallout from the scandal is such that Prime Minister Kishida’s cabinet approval ratings have fallen to 16.6% in the month of April 2024, which is the lowest ever since he assumed office in October 2021.

The approval ratings fell by 1.4% points from March 2024, showcasing a downward spiral. In fact, Kishida’s approval ratings are the lowest for any post-war Japanese Prime Minister ever since such polls started in 1947.

Although Kishida has tried to ‘fight fire with fire’ by reshuffling his cabinet and also by disbanding his own faction, his approval ratings continue to take a hit. Even before the slush scandal broke out, his approval ratings had already gone way down below the 30% points danger mark.

The slush fund scandal has hit another nail in the already flagging administration of Kishida. Ever since the scandal broke out, Kishida has tried his best to not cede any political space to his opponents and competitors both within and outside the LDP. He had vouched to the Japanese public that he would do everything in his power to restore public trust in the LDP and bring in necessary reforms.

To his credit, he ordered an internal probe of the LDP and said that the guilty would be held accountable and that he would go to the root of the cause. On April 4, as part of disciplinary actions taken by the LDP’s internal Ethics Committee, a total of 39 LDP lawmakers were suspended.

Among them were senior Abe faction leaders like Ryu Shionoya, head of the Abe faction’s 15-member all-powerful executive board, and Hiroshige Seko, LDP’s former secretary-general of the Upper House Caucus. Suspension of lawmakers is the second harshest measure after expulsion among LDP’s disciplinary measures.

File: US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida

But Kishida was hopeful that a ‘successful’ week-long visit to the US would reap electoral benefits for him and his party as he and his supporters had touted the visit as a major success.

Just after the US visit, his domestic approval ratings gained by 5.4% points in a TV Asahi poll, highlighting public approval of his US visit. So what awaits Kishida after the disastrous by-elections? Kishida’s biggest threat to his political future will come from within the LDP.

There have been growing murmurs in the LDP rank and file for a change of leadership at the top. Already under fire from the public because of his lackluster handling of the slush fund scandal as well as his failure to bring in political reforms.

The results are being seen as a punishment which shall definitely undermine his leadership and his hold over the LDP. Although the opposition is fractured at the moment, the losses could heighten internal attacks against Kishida.

Kishida, until recently, was seen as the frontrunner in the September 2024 polls for the post of the LDP President. In this context, there are speculations that Kishida might dissolve the Lower House and might call for early elections at the end of the current Diet session. An LDP victory will definitely put him back in the leading position for the September polls, and the temptation thus could be high.

But the results of the April 28 by-elections would have dashed any such hopes of dissolving the Lower House. Whatever Kishida does decide from here on, Japan’s politics is on the course of turmoil in the upcoming months for sure.

  • Dr. Amlan Dutta is a Junior Fellow at the Prime Minister’s Museum and Library (PMML), Teen Murti House, New Delhi, where he is working on India’s policy towards East Asia and the Indo-Pacific. He has a PhD from the Dept. of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi, where he has worked on Japan’s domestic politics and Japan’s foreign policy. He is also a former Assistant Professor at the Rashtriya Raksha University (An Institution of National Importance), Ministry of Home Affairs, Govt. of India. His primary focus areas are International Relations, Indian Foreign Policy, East Asian Domestic Politics and Geopolitics, Security Studies, and Maritime Security.