Initial approval rates reflect a shaky start for Japan’s new leader

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New Prime Minister Fumio Kishida (center front) poses for a group photograph with members of his Cabinet at the Prime Minister's Office in Tokyo on Monday. Photo: BLOOMBERG

Japan’s new Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has just started his tenure as the new leader of the country at a difficult time. Japan, like many other nations around the world, is yet to see a convincing end to the pandemic that already had seriously damaged country’s economic sector and also had far-reaching repercussions on social fabrics of the nation. Despite a drastic drop in infection rate, there is also wider apprehension that another wave might hit the country soon again. As a result, there is no time for the leadership to feel secured and this is probably the main reason why Kishida, right from the days of floating his candidacy for the party leadership to replace the outgoing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, had been emphasizing on the need for finding a durable solution to the economic wounds of the society through taking a new course away from the neo-liberal model of his predecessors, which is seen by many as the root cause of the existing social disparity.

This was probably one of the main reasons that Kishida, during his campaign in the leadership race, had emphasized on finding a new way for chartering the economy out of the old neo-classical mold that had benefited small group of the rich at the expense of the majority. However, this voice of the new leader has somehow been muted soon after he was successful in dislodging his rivals in the leadership race. The reason can be traced within the set-up of his new support base that played crucial role in electing him the new party leader and thus paving the way for him to become the next prime minster.

The same neo-liberal camp headed by the former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the finance chief of his team Taro Aso, who Kishida was critical about for the not listening to the plight of the poor, has turned out to be his main backer and by ensuring his victory had successfully turned the course of his economic campaign more or less to the same old model of providing periodic monetary stimulation and not addressing the issue of disparity in distribution of wealth. As a result, general public in Japan has become puzzled by the motive of the new prime minister and this disillusionment had been broadly reflected in two separate public opinion surveys conducted by the Japanese media.

The results of an opinion poll conducted by the leading daily Mainichi Shimbun with the help of Social Survey Research Center revealed that 49 percent of the respondents of this nationwide survey approved Kishida cabinet, while the disapproval rate stood at 40 percent. The approval rate of near 50 percent might look not that bad in the eyes of many who are not well aware of the political trends in Japan. This approval rate is one of the lowest in last two decades, and stands slightly higher than what Taro Aso cabinet could ensure back in 2009. Aso cabinet’s support rate soon after its formation was lowest within this time frame and with a mere 45 percent support rate the tenure of his leadership came to an abrupt end withing a short period of time.

And when compared to the initial support rate enjoyed by Kishida’s immediate predecessor Yoshihide Suga, here too Kishida had shown poorly. At the time of cabinet’s inauguration, Suga had a relatively healthy 64 percent public support, which started falling drastically in subsequent days. So, the Mainichi survey had shown very clearly that the general public are disillusioned with his policy position and if the new leader fails to take note of that alarming sign, days ahead of him might turn out to be more uncertain and stormier.

It is not the Mainichi survey alone that sounded alarming for Kishida. Results of a second survey conducted by Japan’s leading news agency Kyodo News also had shown Kishida’s standing well below that of his predecessor. The nationwide telephone survey conducted over two days after Kishida was elected prime minister had given the approval rate for his cabinet 55.7 percent. Though well above the Mainichi rate, the rate is yet not convincing enough for showing a sound footing. Regarding his economic policies, 46.6 percent said they are hopeful, while 46.9 percent were blunt enough to say they did not see any hope. This outcome is probably is a reflection of public disappointment over the return of the same old policy making group as the main supporting force behind Kishida.

As for cabinet disapproval rating, 23.7 percent in Kyodo opinion poll does not reflect an alarming situation, However, if compared to the disapproval rate of Kishida’s predecessor, here too it becomes obvious that the new cabinet had shown poorly. Early disapproval rate for Suga cabinet was only 16.2 percent and we know how short Suga’s tenure had been.

The most difficult task Kishida is to face in coming days is the general election scheduled for October 31. Any failure in maintaining the current predominant majority in the Diet intact might turn out to be a serious blow for him. Mainichi Shimbun had also conducted a separate opinion poll focusing of support for political parties. The poll revealed that while 41 percent of respondents expressed their opinion in favor of voting for the ruling coalition in single-seat constituencies, 34 percent said they would opt for opposition party candidates. As for proportional representation where voters pick not a candidate but a political party, 34 percent said they would vote for the main ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which is currently headed by Kishida. Here, LDP was followed by the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party with the support rate of 16 percent. Among other parties, 8 percent opted for Nippon Isshin no Kai, 7 percent for Japanese Communist Party, and 6 percent for Komei Party, the junior partner of LDP in the current coalition government. However, 24 percent of all respondents said they have not decided who they would be voting for and this relatively large group of undecided voters might turn out to be crucial in deciding the outcome.

Hence, the tasks for Japan’s new prime minister in coming weeks might seem to be not easy in anyway. How well he will be managing in steering the LDP to a comfortable victory in the upcoming general election might eventually decide his fate. Though support rate for his cabinet is showing alarming signs, a fragmented opposition is the silver lining that might help LDP and the coalition to retain power, at least for the time being.

(Tokyo, October 7, 2021)

  • Prime Minister Fumio Kishida
  • Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)
  • Japan

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