Japan's Kishida Leaves Abe Cabinet Amid Leadership Chatter

Updated on
  • Kishida takes policy post in ruling party ahead of reshuffle
  • Finance Minister, Chief Cabinet Secretary expected to stay

Abe to Reshuffle Cabinet to Get Government on Track

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

Fumio Kishida was appointed chairman of the Liberal Democratic Party’s Policy Research Council. Abe is reshuffling his ministers and party officials after a slump in popularity and a humiliating local election defeat. His struggles have increased tensions between the LDP’s factions, one of which is headed by Kishida.

It’s unclear if Abe sought to have Kishida stay on. Speaking to reporters after the change was announced, Kishida did not address that question, speaking instead about issues including the economy. Abe will reveal his new ministerial line-up later Thursday.

"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.

Party Leadership

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.

"At this point, the people are taking a harsh view of the Abe administration and of the LDP," Abe told party members on Thursday. "I am reflecting deeply on having brought that situation on,” he said. "We will win back the people’s trust by renewing our determination and achieving results."

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.

Read more: Why Japan voters are turning on Abe

Kishida is seen as less hawkish than Abe on defense, telling reporters on Thursday that his caution on changing pacifist Article 9 of the constitution had not changed. Abe is seeking to revise the U.S.-drafted document by 2020 to make clear the legitimacy of the armed forces.

Having served as Abe’s foreign minister since 2012, Kishida 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 percent, far from the central bank’s two percent target.

Finance Minister Taro Aso and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga are expected to keep their positions. Abe must name a replacement defense 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. The reshuffle may not succeed in bolstering voter support, according to Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo.

"He’ll be trying to regain his authority by turning a new page and getting rid of the problematic ministers,” Nakano said. “But he is also the source of the problem in many ways and he can’t get rid of himself.”

Two Abe critics are set to get jobs: Seiko Noda will become internal affairs minister while Taro Kono, who argues for immigration to ease Japan’s demographic crisis, will be appointed foreign minister, NHK said in separate reports. Despite Abe’s policy of putting women in 30 percent of management positions, the number of women in the cabinet is set to fall to two from three of 19.

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.

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