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Shock at the midterm elections / Japanese Prime Minister Kishida questioned as ‘face of the elections’; Dietary dissolution in June is still being considered

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida waves as he visits Matsue, Shimane Prefecture, to deliver a speech in support of a Liberal Democratic Party candidate for Shimane Constituency No. 1 on Saturday.

The loss of all three seats on offer in Sunday’s House of Representatives by-election dealt a major blow to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. This is the first part in a series examining issues such as the dissolution of the lower house, possible candidates to replace Kishida, and movements surrounding the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and other parties.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who is also chairman of the LDP, expressed a sense of urgency to his aides after the defeats, including two seats where the party did not even field candidates.

“If we hold elections for the House of Commons soon, the government could be replaced,” Kishida, 66, said, expressing concerns about a possible shift in political power away from the LDP.

The LDP fielded a candidate in Shimane Constituency No. 1, part of a “conservative kingdom” that the party has long considered its stronghold. The LDP’s complete defeat by a margin of more than 20,000 votes proves that adverse winds are blowing against the party due to its factions’ violations of the Political Funds Control Law.

Kishida told one of his cabinet members late last year about his prospects for 2024, saying: “There will be a political event.”

The Prime Minister had the end of the regular session of the Reichstag in mind in June for the dissolution of the lower house of the Reichstag.

If the party were to win the House of Commons elections in the summer, it would pave the way for a smooth victory in the LDP presidential race that will take place in September.

Although Kishida is deeply concerned about the results of the midterm elections, he has told aides that he has yet to decide whether or not to dissolve the Diet. He still wants to explore the possibility of a dissolution in June by trying to keep the current government afloat.

Yet, despite Kishida’s intentions, a situation has arisen within the ruling parties where he cannot freely exercise his right to dissolve the government. There is a growing view that the LDP would not be able to contest elections with Kishida at the helm of the party.

On Saturday afternoon, a day before the midterm elections, participants were in a circle filled with a tense atmosphere during an LDP political reform dialogue in Okayama.

“The top leader must resign,” said a member of the LDP prefectural branch in Okayama, demanding that Kishida resign.

It was in response to Kisaburo Tokai, the chairman of the LDP’s Policy Research Council, who asked participants for their opinions on how the party should rebuild itself in light of the recent political funds scandal involving LDP factions.

In light of the LDP’s midterm election defeats, mid-ranking and young LDP lawmakers who lack a strong campaign base are desperate. “If the lower house is dissolved now, I will lose the election,” said one of these lawmakers.

“As long as Kishida is in power, I don’t think his popularity will increase no matter what,” said one of the LDP’s top executives.

Feeling of discomfort

As Kishida’s leadership deteriorates, top party officials feel uneasy.

During the midterm election campaigns, it was rumored that LDP Secretary General Toshimitsu Motegi, who maintains a certain distance from Kishida, would announce his resignation after the counting of votes on Sunday evening. The rumor emerged as some people believed that Motegi would begin preparing to run in the next LDP presidential election under the guise of taking responsibility for the results of the midterm elections.

Motegi, together with Yuko Obuchi, head of the party’s campaign headquarters, instead told reporters: “We will work to restore confidence in the party.” He made no mention of a possible dismissal.

However, an LDP member who was once a minister said: “An anti-Kishida movement has emerged not only because of the sense of hopelessness that no matter who is in charge, the situation will remain difficult for a while.”

Awkward conversations

LDP’s coalition partner Komeito has begun to distance itself from Kishida.

Kishida met with Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi at the Prime Minister’s office at noon on April 15, a day before the start of the official campaign for the three midterm elections. The awkward conversations they had represented the difficult relationship between the two parties.

“We have not received any request for advice from your party. What do you make of it?” Yamaguchi asked Kishida. This was because although a written request to recommend an LDP candidate for the lower house in the Shimane No. 1 constituency by-election had been submitted to Komeito, no official Motegi’s request had been received.

Kishida bowed his head and asked for support, saying, “Please.”

Yamaguchi also criticized the LDP’s failure to submit its own bill to revise the Political Funds Control Law, saying, “You have to hurry up, otherwise the people won’t tolerate it.”

Komeito decided to make his recommendation to the LDP candidate on the afternoon of April 15.

Some Komeito members say that if Kishida decides to dissolve the lower house in the near future, LDP candidates who have been punished by their party in connection with the political funds scandal should not receive recommendations from Komeito.

“This is an option worth considering as it could help us avoid being lumped in with the LDP,” a Komeito source said. “We could also use the option as an asset to prevent an early dissolution of the lower house.”

Komeito Secretary General Keiichi Ishii mentioned a possible general election in a TV program. “An autumn election after the LDP presidential election is the most likely scenario,” he said. While this statement caused some ripples, one Komeito member said: “He represented our honest opinion that it is necessary to change the prime minister.”

Limited options

Kishida is well aware of the harsh atmosphere within the ruling parties, but he also told his close aides: “No one can do the job of the prime minister unless he has a thick skin color.”

But even if Kishida considers dissolving the lower house despite these cautious views, the schedule will be tight as many diplomatic events take place in June and July, including the Group of Seven summit in Italy.

“An increasing number of people are now calling for the elections to be postponed. Amid these and other circumstances, the options for dissolving the lower house before the LDP presidential election are now quite limited,” a senior LDP official said.

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