Abe’s Legacy Looms Large in Kishida Plan for Japanese Cabinet Overhaul

·5 min read

(Bloomberg) -- Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is set to reshuffle his cabinet amid doubts over the future of the party’s largest faction after the murder of leader Shinzo Abe, which also exposed embarrassing ties between its members and the Unification Church.

The new line-up will be announced Wednesday, Kishida said. It could provide indications of how power within the faction-driven Liberal Democratic Party has shifted away from Abe’s bloc, which is nearly twice as large as its closest rival.

The former leader’s faction has no clear successor and its future remains uncertain, complicating the political calculus for Kishida as he looks to strike a balance among the party’s competing forces, even as his own support slides.

“At this point, there’s no one with the ability or charisma to control it,” LDP lawmaker and former trade minister Akira Amari wrote of the Abe faction in a blog entry last month. “There will be a lot of focus on what changes occur.” The faction decided not to pick a new leader for the time being, instead leaving Abe’s two former deputies to run it together.

After leading the LDP to victory in an upper house election in July, Kishida may not need to face another national vote for three years. Any challenge to his leadership, and key policies such as his New Capitalism plan for a more equal society, is likely to come from within the LDP.

Apart from advocating for policy, the rival groups that make up the LDP -- in power almost continuously since it was formed in 1955 -- often effectively pick the country’s leaders by bloc voting in party elections. Abe’s group has been in the ascendancy since the turn of the century -- producing a series of premiers including Junichiro Koizumi and Yasuo Fukuda.

Kishida’s ties with Abe, which date back to their entry to parliament in 1993, had already proved a double-edged sword. While Abe helped maintain stability in the party, he’d also publicly prodded his former foreign minister not to stray from his economic agenda, including massive monetary easing, and to increase defense spending.

Any changes in monetary policy would likely come after the government has had time to see its measures implemented on easing the sting from rising prices, economists have said.

With Abe no longer pulling strings, Kishida may now have a freer hand to pursue his own economic agenda, even as he struggles to control party rebels. There is also speculation Abe’s group may split.

“If a major faction gets into a dispute, Kishida may be drawn into it,” said Tomoaki Iwai, emeritus professor of political science at Nihon University. “In the past, he could sort things out by talking to Abe, but now he won’t know who to talk to, so he will need to be very careful with his appointments.”

Another negative side of the association with Abe has emerged since his death. After the suspected killer cited a grudge over the ex-premier’s ties to the group formerly known as the Unification Church, which he told police ruined his family financially, the media and public have focused on other lawmakers’ similar links -- many of them from Abe’s faction.

This includes Abe’s younger brother and current Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, a member of his faction who has spoken of receiving support from the church. Kishi, who is also in poor health, is likely to be the highest profile cabinet member on the way out, Kyodo News said Sunday.

His departure could allow another faction to take over the post, which has grown in importance as Japan looks to ramp up defense spending in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Regional tensions are soaring again following China’s firing of missiles close to Taiwan that Japan said landed in its exclusive economic zone for the first time.

About half of the cabinet posts are likely to change hands, TV Asahi reported. Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, who belongs to the faction led by Kishida and has denied any relations with the church, is likely to stay in place, Kyodo said.

Lawmaker ties with the Unification Church, which has dozens of court rulings against it over its methods of inducing members to make enormous donations, have angered the public. That’s probably contributed to a plunge in support for Kishida, who is also being battered by concerns over the latest wave of virus cases and rising food and fuel costs.

A poll carried out by public broadcaster NHK over the weekend found support for his cabinet had tumbled 13 percentage points to 46%, the lowest since he took office last year. More than 80% of respondents said political parties and lawmakers hadn’t explained their ties to the church sufficiently.

On Saturday, almost a month after Abe’s assassination, Kishida said he would clamp down by requiring all current and prospective ministers and vice-ministers to clarify and rethink ties with the church.

Koichi Hagiuda, another prominent member of the Abe faction, is likely to be switched to the role of LDP policy chief, according to NHK. But wrangling over numbers may make it harder for Kishida to keep the peace in his party.

“To somehow unite the LDP, Kishida needed Abe’s power,” said Mieko Nakabayashi, a former lawmaker turned professor of political science at Waseda University. “It’s gone and everyone is wondering whether Kishida has enough power to keep everyone together.”

(Updates with Kishida comment in second paragraph on new cabinet.)

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