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JAPAN: Kishida, Abe, and the quid pro quo

Table of Contents

  • The first set of public opinion polls show only lukewarm support for new Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's administration, and a large majority does not favor his economic plans.
  • Even so, the Hallowe'en Lower House election won't turn into a horror show for Kishida and the LDP, due to the party's structural advantages in the electoral system, the weak opposition, and the new PM's solid support from the Shinzo Abe-aligned right wing.
  • The question now is what the right wing will ask in return, in terms of foreign and defense policy and even constitutional revision.

Structural advantages

The first batch of public opinion polls released for the new Fumio Kishida administration this week show approval ratings ranging from around 45% to 55%. The last PM to start with such tepid public support was Taro Aso in 2008, a year before he led the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to a catastrophic election defeat for only the second time since 1955. Worse still for Kishida, after nine years of voters waiting for the trickle-down, less than a quarter of survey respondents supported his intention to continue with the Abenomics economic policy game plan, and half were not hopeful about his promise of a new kind of capitalism. For a new leader whose victory over popular favorite Taro Kono was due largely to the machinations of the party's higher-ups, these were not welcome numbers.

However, it would be premature to conclude that Kishida's premiership will now follow the precipitous trajectory of Yoshihide Suga's one-year stint or go down the electoral plughole a la Aso in the 31 October Lower House vote. For one, the LDP enjoys built-in structural advantages in the electoral system that makes them and coalition partners Komeito particularly hard to displace from power. Second, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), which emerged in 2017, still lacks strong party structures, bench depth, or coordination with other opposition parties sufficient to scare the LDP at Hallowe'en. Third, whereas the factionally unaligned Suga's rise to the top was built on an uneasy conjoining of the opposing Shinzo Abe/Taro Aso and Toshihiro Nikai groupings, Kishida instead enjoys a more coherent coalition of support from the Abe/Aso right wing of the party and his own, moderate Kochikai faction. Irrespective of public approval numbers and in the absence of a major transformation in the opposition, as long as Kishida has the support of the right wing he will have a stable base for governing going forward.

For these reasons, and in the context of an auspicious electoral calendar through to 2025, Kishida has every opportunity to oversee an enduring administration and avoid a return to the revolving-door premierships of previous decades. In this context, one of the most important questions of the moment is, what will the nationalist right wing seek to extract as the price of its support? The asks are likely to come in three stages.

A pound of flesh

The most basic requirements will be a step increase in defense spending above the conventional limit of around 1% of GDP, a retooling of the Self Defense Forces through the acquisition or deployment of new technologies like strike- capable missiles, and a more hawkish posture towards China. These are in effect first-order policy changes, tweaking the knobs. Kishida advocated for such policies in the leadership race, and should be able to deliver them. More meat for the base here would be to visit the controversial Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo, which would anger Beijing and Seoul but cheer Abe, and to make fresh efforts to secure the return of Japanese abductees in North Korea, something Kishida already mentioned in his first prime ministerial press conference.

Beyond that, the right would want a more overt declaration of support for Taiwan and perhaps a commitment to help in the event of an incident in the Strait. Such steps would historically have been outside the limits of Japan's ‘peace constitution,' but then-Prime Minister Abe's 2014 reinterpretation of Article 9 and 2015 security legislation to allow for'collective self-defense' provide a path toward this. In recent months, an LDP policy committee has been pressing on these issues, senior party members met counterparts from Taiwan's ruling party in a proxy for a diplomatic summit, and various LDP figures have backed Taipei's application to join the CPTPP. Making a Taiwan commitment on this level would be a second-order change, a bigger challenge to deliver, and would risk provoking Beijing's ire and damaging vital trade and investment interests.

The end of the rainbow

At the highest level, the pot of gold at the end of the nationalist rainbow remains revision of the constitution drafted in 1946 by American officials, especially the text of Article 9 that renounces the right to wage war or possess'war potential' capabilities. Since the 1950s under Abe's grandfather Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, the right wing has sought to re-establish Japan as a'normal' military power, yet not even the highly skilled Abe could achieve this during a total of nine years as prime minister. The bar to constitutional reform is so high that no government has ever even introduced a bill in the Diet to propose it, since revision requires a two-thirds supermajority in both houses followed by majority approval in a national referendum. Polls suggest the public would still reject such a proposition, and given that Hiroshima-native Kishida comes from a liberal, dovish tradition in the party, it is hard to imagine that his heart would truly be in it.

Yet Kishida has already paid lip-service to the idea of constitutional revision during the leadership campaign, and each successive act of assertiveness by China in the region is slowly but surely chipping away at Japan's pacifist bulwark. A major incident across the Taiwan Strait could bring a tipping point. The revision of Article 9 would mark a third-order change, a paradigm shift in Japan's view of itself and its role in the world. On balance, such a change still remains unlikely given the high hurdles, but the extent to which the Abe wing pushes its demands and the ways in which the new PM responds will be key signposts for the future of the Kishida premiership.

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JAPAN: Kishida, Abe, and the quid pro quo

The first set of public opinion polls show only lukewarm support for new Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s administration, and a large majority does not