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Why Fumio Kishida’s Future as Japan’s Prime Minister Looks Uncertain

3 minute read
Ian Bremmer is a foreign affairs columnist and editor-at-large at TIME. He is the president of Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultancy, and GZERO Media, a company dedicated to providing intelligent and engaging coverage of international affairs. He teaches applied geopolitics at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, and his most recent book is The Power of Crisis.

It’s not easy being Japan’s Prime Minister. Though the center-right Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has dominated the country’s politics for nearly seven decades, the top job has frequently changed hands. Fumio Kishida is just the third leader in the past quartercentury to last at least two years. Yet once again, change is coming.

His weakness is obvious. A May poll from Japan’s NHK put Kishida’s approval rating at a dismal 24%, down from 36% in October 2023. That’s well below the lowest-ever score for Yoshihide Suga, the man Kishida replaced in October 2021. To remain Prime Minister, Kishida must stay on as president of the ruling LDP. But his current term in that role ends in September, and an especially rough night for his party in special elections in April makes it unlikely that he can hold on.

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How did Kishida get here? Rising consumer prices, a weak Japanese yen, and accusations of economic mismanagement have dogged Kishida. Nor is he helped by reports that Japan will slip to the world’s fifth largest economy by 2025, just behind India. Months earlier, Japan fell into fourth place, behind Germany.

But Kishida is also a victim of the LDP’s political malpractice. Under his leadership, the party has faced a major campaign fundraising scandal and a resulting criminal investigation. Four senior LDP officials have been pushed out from the party and dozens more disciplined. But critics charge that Kishida has accepted no personal responsibility for the wrongdoing, despite news that some of those implicated were his close political allies.

Kishida’s best chance of keeping his job is indecision within the party over who could replace him. For the moment, no single challenger has widespread party support for the top job, and all the best-known contenders have political weaknesses. Some leading LDP members are popular with the public but don’t have key allies within the party itself.

There is, however, one player who might still become the party’s king—or at least kingmaker. Taro Aso is the LDP’s vice president and a former Prime Minister himself. In April, it was Aso who met with Donald Trump during a trip to New York. That’s a sign of both his clout within the Kishida government and a recognition that dealing with Trump, if he defeats President Joe Biden in November, will be one of the next Japanese leader’s most important and complex problems.

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There is another intriguing possibility. Yoko Kamikawa is Japan’s first female Foreign Minister in two decades. The LDP has never had a female leader, and Japan never a female Prime Minister. Kamikawa isn’t the most charismatic figure, but she is praised for her competence and courage. If Aso backs her, Kamikawa could break through the highest of Japan’s glass ceilings.

Kishida will do his best to remain afloat through the summer. But, for now, it appears that like many Japanese Prime Ministers before him, Kishida will spend his final months on the job as a political dead man walking.

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