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Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida (right) and his predecessor Yoshihide Suga pictured in 2021. Photo: Kyodo via Reuters

Is Japan’s Yoshihide Suga planning a comeback as PM Fumio Kishida’s approval rating sinks?

  • Suga, who Kishida replaced in October 2021, has been a vocal opponent of his successor’s unpopular plan to increase taxes for defence spending
  • The former leader is ‘trying to make sure he’s seen’, an analyst said, amid lingering factional infighting and a public ‘disappointed’ in Kishida
Unpopular with the public and increasingly within his own party, the political future of Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida may hinge on local elections and by-elections in April. And should his Liberal Democratic Party fare badly at the polls, then a familiar name appears to be waiting in the wings.
There is growing speculation that former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga may be plotting a return as the public’s perception of his one-year in office is being reassessed in light of Kishida’s shortcomings since he took over from Suga in October 2021.

Suga was critical of Kishida in a recent interview for the Bungeishunju news magazine, accusing the prime minister of deepening factional rivalries within the LDP by deciding to stay on as faction leader after becoming national leader.

“This sends the message that factional politics linger, which only makes the public more critical,” Suga said.

Former Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga holds talks with Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh in Hanoi on January 9. Photo: Kyodo

Suga is not a member of a party faction but apparently feels he and some factions have been sidelined from the decision-making process, as Kishida has relied on members of his own parliamentary grouping, working closely with Taro Aso, party vice-president, and party secretary general Toshimitsu Motegi, who both head their own factions.

Suga has also spoken out against Kishida’s plans to increase taxes to pay for a sharp increase in defence spending. Like many on the party’s conservative wing, Suga believes the government should issue more bonds to cover increased costs instead of raising taxes, because many businesses and people are struggling with soaring prices.

Suga has said Kishida pushed ahead with “too little discussion” within the party.

Quoting a colleague close to the former prime minister, the Asahi newspaper said Suga had said that while many members of the public “have shown an understanding about the need to increase defence spending, the ideas of how to come up with the funds have been shoddy. We should have spent more time fully debating the issue”.

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The source also suggested that as many as 80 members could unite to impose their will on Kishida, a significant proportion of the 376 LDP politicians who sit in the two houses of Japan’s parliament, or Diet.

Suga was in Vietnam this month to meet government officials “and it struck me as odd that a former prime minister would carry out that mission instead of a serving member of the government”, said Hiromi Murakami, a political-science professor at Temple University.

She said she thought Suga was “trying to make sure he was seen” and was “still playing a key role”.

It’s a poorly kept secret that LDP conservatives are unhappy with several of Kishida’s initiatives, she said, which appears to be mirrored in public attitudes. The latest poll by national broadcaster NHK, released on January 10, shows the prime minister’s support rate has fallen 3 percentage points in the last month and is at a new low of 33 per cent since Kishida came to power. His disapproval rating was up 1 percentage point to 45 per cent.


Japanese PM Kishida orders investigation into Unification Church as his approval ratings plummet

Japanese PM Kishida orders investigation into Unification Church as his approval ratings plummet

The biggest issue for conservatives is the plan to increase taxes, Murakami said. “They are firmly against more taxes, but they also feel that their voices have been ignored and that decisions have been taken much too quickly.”

Kishida has faced various problems that have tarnished his government. These include revelations surrounding the LDP’s links to the Unification Church in the aftermath of last year’s assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, with suggestions the religious group had a say in politics.
The national economy remains in the doldrums, wages are stagnant as prices rise and four members of Kishida’s cabinet have stepped down in the last four months for questionable conduct. But even his handling of these crises has been criticised.

He has never been decisive in any of the issues, said Murakami, adding that “it took far too long to fire those ministers and he just comes across as looking weak”. She said that overall the public has been “deeply disappointed in his leadership”, which is making people rethink Suga’s performance.

Now [Suga] is seeing Kishida become politically weaker and probably thinks he could do a better job
Hiromi Murakami, political-science professor

While he may have earned a reputation for being a dull, uninspiring leader who had little public presence when he spoke and even less rapport with the media, Suga’s image is now being re-examined.

Murakami said that Suga was behind the rapid – if belated – roll out of coronavirus vaccines and orchestrated reforms in some ministries, insisting that the country’s bureaucracy streamline and modernise its operations, such as by reducing the use of fax machines and the even more archaic insistence on using “hanko” seals on all official documents.

“There’s a feeling that Suga faced many challenges and overcame plenty of them, but just never got the credit because he was such a bad self-promoter,” she said. “But now he is seeing Kishida become politically weaker and probably thinks he could do a better job, so I am sure he is thinking of a challenge.”

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That challenge could come in weeks, said Yoichi Shimada, an international-relations professor at Fukui Prefectural University.

Ahead of the local elections “a lot of LDP candidates are very worried about the support they are going to receive as prices continue to rise and this threat of tax increases hangs over them”, he said.

“What Suga is saying reflects that discontent, although I do not personally think he is planning a comeback,” he said. “I believe he is laying the groundwork for another challenger if the party does very poorly in April and Kishida is seen to be vulnerable.”

For Shimada, two names top the list of potential rivals for Kishida’s position. Koichi Hagiuda, chairman of the LDP’s policy research council is favoured by conservatives, while Taro Kono, minister of digital affairs, would be the choice of centrist factions.