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Shinzo Abe

Japan’s foreign minister Kishida set to leave Abe’s cabinet amid leadership speculation

The reshuffle comes at a time when the public’s support rate for Abe’s cabinet has hit historic lows amid a number of high-profile scandals

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 August, 2017, 11:47am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 August, 2017, 10:04pm

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s long-serving foreign minister is poised to leave the cabinet in a reshuffle Thursday, a step that frees him to run for leadership of the ruling party.

Fumio Kishida is set to be appointed chairman of the Liberal Democratic Party’s Policy Research Council, according to a party official with knowledge of the matter who asked not to be identified talking about confidential matters. Public broadcaster NHK reported the news earlier Wednesday. Kishida’s office was not immediately available to comment.

Abe is reshuffling his ministers and party officials as he seeks to get his government on track after a slump in popularity and a humiliating local election defeat. Still, Abe’s struggles have increased tensions between the LDP’s factions, one of which is headed by Kishida.

“Usually, people who want to aim for the leadership don’t take cabinet jobs,” said Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior research fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation in Tokyo.

“Mr Kishida’s staying out so that he can launch a challenge.”

“Probably Mr Kishida resisted - the prime minister asked him to stay on but he refused,” Watanabe added. A series of conflicting media reports about Kishida’s fate have emerged over the past few weeks.

Allegations of cronyism have undermined public trust in Abe, while a series of scandals and gaffes have focused criticism on his ministers. His falling support does not necessarily put his job in immediate danger, though a recent poll indicated that voters no longer see him as the most appropriate person to lead the government.

Until recently thought to be guaranteed a third straight term as party leader, Abe is increasingly likely to face a rival or rivals in an election for party president expected in September next year.

Abe’s woes come as his government faces several offshore challenges: North Korea has tested two intercontinental ballistic missiles within a matter of weeks, despite international sanctions against the regime, and Japan must navigate the economic protectionism of U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration.

Kishida is seen as less hawkish than Abe on defence, saying he saw no need to push ahead with the premier’s plan to change the pacifist constitution by 2020. Having served as Abe’s foreign minister since 2012, he has said little in public about economic policy.

Nevertheless, with the LDP divided over how to tackle Japan’s ballooning debt and the best path for monetary policy, a leadership battle would raise doubts among investors. While Japan’s economy is heading for a sixth-straight quarter of growth, and unemployment is at its lowest levels since the 1990s, inflation has stalled at 0.4 per cent, far from the central bank’s two per cent target.

Finance Minister Taro Aso and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga are expected to keep their positions. Abe must name a replacement defence minister after his protege Tomomi Inada resigned from the post last week over a cover up involving military documents, with NHK reporting that Itsunori Onodera would return to the role.

Former trade minister Toshimitsu Motegi may become minister for economic revitalization, NHK added. Reinstalling familiar faces is a low-risk strategy for Abe, but is likely to limit any resulting boost in opinion polls, according to Steven Reed, professor of political science at Chuo University in Tokyo.

“In some ways at this point not being interesting is a good thing,” he said. “If you choose someone with a track record, who’s done well in the past, you’re at least safe from more damaging revelations. The downside of that is there’s nothing spectacular about your new cabinet.”

A general election does not need to be held until the end of 2018, but some analysts have speculated that Abe will opt to call a poll this year to seek a fresh mandate. While his popularity has fallen, the opposition Democratic Party is also struggling, casting about for a new leader to bolster its support beyond single figures.

With a party founded by Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike yet to make significant inroads on the national stage, the LDP would face minimal opposition. Koike evicted the LDP from power in the Tokyo assembly in an election last month.