For the latest news and analysis on how business, politics and economics intersect around the world, sign up for our daily global news briefing here.
Upcoming local elections will shape an embattled Kishida’s political future
Since its founding in 1955, Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party has governed Japan for all but a few years. While the LDP has maintained its hold on post-war politics, in part thanks to a historically fractured opposition, the Japanese public has grown increasingly dissatisfied with the country’s direction. The trend has coincided with plummeting approval for Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who has seen lower ratings throughout most of 2023 than either of his predecessors at any time since 2019, both with the public at large and within his own party.
Upcoming local elections will thus pose a critical challenge for Kishida and the beleaguered LDP, whose political and legislative agenda could be further imperiled by a poor performance. We view this as a risk worth watching, owing to the above trends and to the declining share of adults who say the LDP represents their own political views. Significant geopolitical ramifications — including scaling back Kishida’s commitment to increased defense spending and the LDP’s long-cherished goal of reforming Japan’s pacifist constitution — could follow, with knock-on effects for Washington’s reliance on Japan in its efforts to constrain China.
Japanese adults’ dissatisfaction with their country and Kishida recently neared all-time highs
With inflation recently reaching record highs, the overwhelming majority of Japanese adults now say their country is “on the wrong track.” The share peaked in early February at 71%, surpassing any similar extremes under Kishida’s predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, who resigned shortly after reaching his own low point, and matching peak levels of dissatisfaction during the tail end of Shinzo Abe’s term in office, which also ended abruptly. Recent weeks have seen a recovery, as inflation has receded and consumer confidence has improved slightly alongside Kishida’s Ukraine visit, but the risk to Kishida and the LDP remains.
Japanese Adults Are Overwhelmingly Dissatisfied With Their Country’s Direction
Notably, the most recent previous high — observed in late July 2020, amid public fear and frustration during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic — came a little over a week before Abe’s surprise announcement that he would resign and retire from politics. Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, cited worsening health as his reason for vacating office, but the decision came amid calls for his resignation over his handling of the pandemic and the country’s flagging economy.
Currently, national dissatisfaction with Japan’s trajectory sits at 61%, having recovered 8 points in the last two weeks, following a prolonged stretch of deeper malaise.
Kishida’s approval rating has, until very recently, been even more fraught. Despite a significant rebound over the past two weeks, less than a third of Japanese adults still say they approve of his leadership, which continues to hover near a series low since we began tracking Japanese leader approval in 2019. From a high of roughly 50% around the begining of 2022, Kishida’s approval fell 30 percentage points to its lowest point in early February 2023. Though Kishida’s approval has rebounded since then, until recently it remained at or below the 24% nadir to which both Abe and Suga had sunk just before resigning. Japan watchers have credited Kishida’s recent diplomatic successes, including a surprise high-profile meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, for his seemingly sudden change in fortune. But it remains to be seen whether the upswing will be short-lived, or if Kishida’s term in office will ultimately be dragged down by fallout from scandals related to the assassination of Abe.
Kishida’s Approval Reached a Historic Low Following Abe’s Assassintion and Related Scandal
Abe’s untimely demise and Kishida’s short-lived mandate
A number of critical events have transpired since Kishida’s high-water mark, mostly related to Abe’s assassination, which shed light on close connections between the LDP and the controversial Unification Church and sparked a political scandal from which Kishida’s approval has not fully recovered.
On July 8, 2022, while campaigning on behalf of his party for upcoming parliamentary elections, former Prime Minister Abe was shot by a man wielding a homemade gun and died later that day. The LDP swept to victory two days later, gaining eight seats and expanding its ruling majority along with junior coalition partner Komeito. The victory was seen as expanding Kishida’s mandate to finally achieve the late Abe’s unfulfilled dream of revising Japan’s pacifist constitution: Following the election, parties in favor surpassed the parliamentary threshold necessary to begin such a process.
However, in the ensuing weeks, revelations surrounding assassin Tetsuya Yamagami’s motives shook the foundations of Japanese politics. Yamagami apparently acted out of bitterness toward Abe and the LDP over its close ties to the Unification Church, which he blamed for bankrupting his family. Subsequent revelations that roughly half of all LDP lawmakers had ties to the church sparked public outrage directed at the party, with clear implications for Kishida’s approval rating. In August 2022, Kishida purged a number of cabinet ministers with close ties to the church, including Abe’s brother, Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi. Economy Minister Daishiro Yamagiwa then resigned in late October after holding out against demands from opposition politicians, as public disapproval over Kishida’s handling of the issue continued to mount.
The public’s dissatisfaction is clear in our data. From a relative high of 46% in the week following Abe’s assassination, Kishida’s approval rating fell by half, reaching 23% in the week ending Oct. 22, lower than either Suga’s or Abe’s approval rating (24%) before their respective resignations. From then until his recent bounce in the week ending March 25, Kishida only surpassed his predecessors’ joint low-water mark once.
Kishida’s support within his own party has also crumbled
Over this same time period, Kishida’s approval among his own party fell by an even greater amount, declining by 27 percentage points to 38%. Kishida’s reputation among LDP supporters continued to diminish thereafter, eventually falling to 33%, below Suga’s lowest party supporter approval rating of 37%.
The decline is especially noteworthy given that Kishida attained his highest approval rating among party supporters in the wake of Abe’s assassination, as the LDP’s rank and file coalesced around a candidate who did not initially have popular support within the party. In the original party election to replace Suga following his resignation, Taro Kono was favored over Kishida by party members and won the popular vote. But owing to the vagaries of LDP election rules, Kishida eventually triumphed in a close runoff on the strength of support from LDP parliamentarians, whose votes outweigh those of local chapters.
An uncertain future for Kishida
Kishida’s recently waning support among LDP adherents could leave him open to a challenger from within his own party, with a leadership election looming in fall 2024. As of now, however, there does not appear to be an internal candidate with enough strength to challenge him.
A poor LDP showing in April’s local elections could change potential rivals’ calculi. But further internal upheaval would pose its own risks. There is not another Diet election — a chance for opposition parties to challenge the LDP’s control — scheduled until 2025. A changing of the guard within the party before then, however, would entail seating a prime minister without a popular mandate, potentially triggering an election at a time when support for the LDP is at its lowest levels in years.
Popular Support for the LDP Is Declining
In the week ending July 30, 2022 — marking the peak of the LDP’s support following Abe’s assassination — 46% of Japanese adults cited the LDP as the party that most closely represents their political beliefs. As of March 11, 2023, that share had declined by 10 points. While Kishida’s fortunes appear to have improved considerably since, the party’s rebound has been far more modest (just 2 points). This could bode ill for the party in upcoming elections, and in turn for Kishida, testing the significance of his recent resurgence as well as his staying power.
Meanwhile, the LDP’s junior coalition partner, Komeito, continues to poll steadily at roughly 4%. These figures do not necessarily translate to Diet seats: A little under 40% of each house is elected by ballots of generalized party support, as opposed to the rest, which are linked to specific candidates contesting discrete districts. But the shift is at least symbolic, as it no longer implies majority public support for the incumbent coalition.
An opposition opportunity?
Public support for the current incarnation of Japan’s traditional left-leaning opposition party, the Constitutional Democratic Party, has increased slightly in recent months but has been upstaged in our polling by the Japan Innovation Party, or Ishin — an increasingly influential Osaka-based conservative reformist party that’s hoping the upcoming local elections will catapult it from regionally focused arriviste to entrenched national significance. Ishin currently holds just 40 seats to the CDP’s 97 in Japan’s lower (and more powerful) house of parliament, which appoints the prime minister. Though the two parties have recently cooperated to stymie Kishida’s agenda, and while each is poised to benefit individually from the upcoming local elections, they are unlikely governing partners given Ishin’s support for amending Japan’s constitution, a move the CDP opposes. Conversely, despite a rightist orientation and common ground over the constitution that would seem to make Ishin a natural coalition partner for the LDP, Ishin leadership has refused such an alliance, citing its commitment to aggressively overhauling Japanese society and preferring to remain an insurgent opposition force for now.
In parallel, the share that says another or no party best represents their political views has rebounded significantly in 2023 and currently outpaces all potential opposition parties.
What’s next for Kishida, the LDP and Japan
While much hangs in the balance going into the upcoming elections, it is more likely than not that Kishida will finish his term as prime minister. But even if the LDP claws back some political capital, he and his party will still be operating with significantly diminished capacity to pursue their legislative goals going forward. This will likely dampen Japan’s ability to deal with lingering economic issues such as the need to raise wages and reform rigid labor laws, which may in turn dent Japan’s appeal as a destination for inbound investment from multinationals.
Knock-on effects for regional geopolitics
The geopolitical ramifications of Kishida’s and the LDP’s diminished clout are potentially even more severe. Last year, Kishida secured a commitment to increase defense spending to 2% of Japan’s GDP, a decision that was lauded in Washington, which would like to see its most significant ally in the Asia-Pacific region shoulder a greater defense burden to hedge against China. But the timetable for this increase remains up in the air, as Kishida’s plans for tax increases to fund this new defense commitment were ultimately stymied by pushback from within his own party.
Likewise, the LDP’s long-held goal of reforming Article 9 of Japan’s constitution, which would allow the country to develop more offensive military capacities, faces steep hurdles. A poor election showing could further limit constitutional reform prospects. This would no doubt please Beijing and frustrate Washington, contributing to greater regional uncertainty moving forward. While local elections are not routinely influential as far as geopolitics is concerned, those with interests in the region should pay especially close attention this time around.
Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Prime Minister Kishida’s name.