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As Scandal Engulfs the LDP, the Kishida Administration Goes on

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As Scandal Engulfs the LDP, the Kishida Administration Goes on

Despite a growing scandal and bottom-dwelling approval ratings, Prime Minister Kishida faces a window of stability.

As Scandal Engulfs the LDP, the Kishida Administration Goes on

Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio attended the Reinventing Infrastructure of Wisdom and Action (ReIWA) forum held in Tokyo, Japan, July 22, 2023,

Credit: Prime Minister’s Office of Japan

A college professor’s criminal complaint about the Liberal Democratic Party’s sloppy bookkeeping resulted in some of the most influential LDP members being purged from the Kishida Cabinet and the party leadership.

After conducting meticulous research, Hiroyuki Kamiwaki of Kobe Gakuin University found out that the members of the leadership of the so-called Abe faction, the largest grouping in the LDP, had failed to record all donations, which is required by law. Suspicious of a cover-up, Kamiwaki reported his finding to the Tokyo Public Prosecutor Office. which is undertaking a formal investigation against the Abe faction. 

Further investigation has revealed that the severity and the scale of the inadequate reporting of political funds amounts to a criminal inquiry. The scandal has plunged the entire party into disarray.

Reports surrounding the public prosecutors’ criminal probe of the Abe faction have highlighted the existence of “slush funds,” a pool of fundraising money that was unreported and went directly into the pockets of lawmakers. Recently, the offices of the Abe faction and the Nikai faction have been raided by Tokyo prosecutors in the ongoing investigation into the scheme, which is reported to involve hundreds of millions of yen that went undisclosed.

Facing potential criminal inquiry, the Abe faction’s “Big 5,” who held prominent positions in both government and party leadership, have either already resigned or have signaled their intention to do so. The most prominent officials out of the Big 5 is Chief Cabinet Secretary Matsuno Hirokazu, whom Kishida once referred to as part of the “core” of his administration. Others include Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Nishimura Yasutoshi and Secretary-General for the LDP in the House of Councillors Seko Hiroshige, who are avowed aspirants for higher office.

The severity of the allegations has led some commentators to compare the circumstances to the Recruit scandal, a corruption scandal that engulfed the LDP back in the late 1980s, which toppled the sitting prime minister, and opened up the path to ending the 40 years of uninterrupted rule by the LDP. Opposition party leaders have alleged that the criminal investigation of the ruling party has shown that the LDP has no legitimacy to govern anymore, and proposed the dismantling of the LDP faction system.

The public backlash to the emerging scandal has plummeted Kishida’s approval rating. A poll from Jiji News showed that Kishida’s approval had dropped to 17 percent, the lowest number seen since 2009 when the LDP was about to lose an election against the Democratic Party of Japan. According to Asahi Shimbun, 58 percent of the public wants Kishida to be removed from power as soon as possible – and 65 percent of independents, which polls show make up almost half of the electorate, have answered the same way.

The problem that Kishida has is that solving the political funds scandal will not suffice, since his numbers were already on the decline several months before the incident. On October 23, in the general policy speech for the Extraordinary Diet session, Kishida emphasized his resolve to tackle soaring inflation and prioritize his government’s focus on the economy, a word that he took time to repeat three times – “Economy, economy, economy – I will focus on the economy above all else.” 

However, the plan that he produced did not bear any fruit. Polls showed that his plan for a tax reduction has been seen as a crude move to manipulate the electorate, which only accelerated distrust of the regime.

If an election is close, there is no doubt that Kishida would face internal pressure from his parliamentarians to resign, in the same way Suga Yoshihide did in 2021. This is the fate that Kishida wanted to avoid above anything else. 

The only thing that is allowing Kishida to remain in power is time. He still has time until he is up for re-election as LDP president in September 2024, and he will not have to call for a general election until the fall of 2025. 

It is not certain whether Kishida would be willing to continue in office after the LDP presidential election next year, given the possible indictments facing his Cabinet members and members of the LDP leadership, while his approval ratings continue to plummet. However, there is no serious contender within the party who is willing to replace Kishida at this point. 

Since every faction of the LDP has been implicated in the slush fund controversy, and much of the public attributes the scandal to the culture of the party, there is a sense in the LDP that no one, in particular, could resolve the public’s distrust and improve the party’s prospects. Also, Kishida’s Cabinet, which is in effect a “team of rivals,” has incorporated possible challengers such as Digital Minister Kono Taro and Economic Security Minster Sanae Takacishi, both of whom fought against Kishida during his last LDP leadership contest.

The opposition parties’ continuing irrelevance is also helping Kishida and the LDP. Both the Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP) and Nippon Ishin have announced that their goal for the next election is to set the stage to replace the LDP in the election after that, effectively admitting that they will not be able to displace the LDP anytime soon. Moreover, despite the public being disgusted by the LDP amid its ongoing scandal, the opposition’s poll numbers remain stagnant.

Despite the strange stability that Kishida seems to enjoy, everything could change once the criminal investigations ramp up. If that is the case, next year’s regular Diet sessions would be consumed by the scandal, and Kishida would have to embark on the extremely difficult task of explaining his party’s failings while passing a budget. Such an onerous task may force him to give up his premiership, a position that he has been seeking for quite some time.

Whether the current crisis in the LDP would lead to a reconstruction of the political landscape of Japanese politics, or another round of revolving door prime ministers, is not yet to be seen. Yet, time is still on the LDP’s side. Kishida’s resilience will determine how long he will remain as the leader of Japan.