Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, despite a disappointing start eight months ago, enjoys surprising popularity playing it safe as public concerns over coronavirus and global strife ease
TOKYO (AP) — Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida didn’t look like he would last long when he took office eight months ago.
He was considered nice, but indecisive and subservient to party heavyweights. Many believed that, like its short-lived predecessor, it was not up to the task of winning over an audience battered by months of pandemic restrictions and economic worries.
A recent surge in popularity, however, portends a July election victory that could set up a long stretch of uninterrupted power. That’s saying something in a country where many former prime ministers had only relatively short periods in power.
The secret of its surprising success?
By mainly playing it safe and holding back on controversial political goals for the time being, he avoided the mistakes that doomed his predecessors, such as appearing autocratic and ignoring public opinion.
It was also helped by an easing of public concerns about the pandemic as well as growing worries about global conflicts. The confluence of good fortune, experts say, has created a public image of a stable, sensible leader with a chance to lift Japan out of decades of economic and security problems.
With his support rate now above 60%, well above the 40% when he first took office, a strong victory for his Liberal Democratic Party in next month’s election looks certain, helped by continued weakness in the government. Japanese opposition. That, in turn, likely means up to three years without another election that could oust him from power.
“Because there were no high expectations for Mr. Kishida when he launched his administration, he can be considered stable just by doing things normally at a safe cruising speed,” Yu Uchiyama said. , professor of politics at the University of Tokyo. “But he cannot stay popular just by looking stable, and his success depends on Mr. Kishida’s ability to react flexibly to changing situations.”
Several years in office would allow Kishida to focus on long-term issues such as Japan’s rapidly aging and rapidly shrinking population, the economy, and a controversial overhaul of the constitution, a longtime goal of his conservative party. opposed by those who fear that its Article 9 renunciation of war will be watered down.
Kishida’s continued success hinges on achieving concrete achievements, analysts say. His actions so far have mostly been responses to the pandemic and global conflicts, and he has remained vague about his political goals.
When Kishida came to power, public support for the ruling coalition had been badly hit by his predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, who was battling a worsening pandemic and insisting on staging the Tokyo Olympics despite a worried public, and was out of power after only about a year.
Kishida’s current high support ratings are in part the result of his tough response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and his cautious measures against COVID-19, including tight border controls that foreign critics called xenophobia. A drop in new cases further bolstered his support, as did his announcement of a gradual reopening to foreign tourists.
As the Japanese worry about China’s and North Korea’s growing assertiveness in the region, he called for a stronger alliance with Washington and mending ties with South Korea, long tainted by bitter tensions over historical issues such as Japan’s past colonization of the Korean peninsula. .
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has heightened Japanese fears that a Chinese attack on Taiwan, the self-governing island Beijing claims as its own, could drag Japan into war. This caused increased support for Kishida’s plan to boost Japan’s military spending and defense power.
“The Ukraine of today may be East Asia tomorrow,” Kishida said last Friday at the Shangri-La Dialogue, an Asian security forum in Singapore.
Last week, Japan’s Cabinet approved an annual policy plan calling for a drastic boost in defense capabilities and spending. The officials spoke of growing tensions over Taiwan and NATO members’ pledge to spend 2% of their gross domestic product on defence, twice as much as Japan’s current military spending, which is just a little more than 1% of GDP.
It calls for pre-emptive strike capabilities as well as the development and strengthening of space, cyber and electromagnetic defense and unmanned weapons. It’s a major shift that critics say goes beyond Japan’s policy of self-defense under its war-denying constitution.
Kishida’s government has also approved legislation to protect Japanese technology and strengthen critical supply chains, while imposing stricter oversight of Japanese companies in sensitive sectors, to bolster security against China.
In a recent commentary, the liberal-leaning Asahi newspaper warned Kishida’s government against “exploiting the Ukraine crisis” to bolster the Japanese military. Japan, with a huge national debt, cannot compete militarily with China and must instead “focus on deterrence through diplomacy”, he said.
Kishida, who describes himself as a good listener, has avoided internal party wrangling over divisive issues. In parliament and at press conferences, he listens patiently to difficult questions, often avoiding confrontations and clear political statements.
This contributes to its inclusive image but blurs its own political principles and goals.
Kishida initially called for a better distribution of wealth as part of his central economic policy, which he calls a “new form of capitalism”, but has since shifted to a growth strategy based on greater fiscal spending, a policy supported by party heavyweights who can influence his future takeover.
“The Kishida administration needs a powerful growth strategy and its ability to deliver concrete measures after the July elections will be key” to its success, said Yasuhide Yajima, chief economist at the NLI Research Institute.