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Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Thursday sacked four influential cabinet members in a bid to save his premiership from Japan’s biggest political funding scandal in more than three decades.
The purge by the increasingly unpopular PM is aimed at shielding him from the effects of a widening slush funds investigation that has involved a large number of politicians from the governing Liberal Democratic party.
Analysts said the gambit, which could dramatically alter LDP power balances that shaped post-war politics, might succeed if Kishida is able to revamp his image by embarking on bold political reform. But if he fails to win over the public, he could quickly turn into a lame-duck premier and risk having to step down before his term as LDP leader expires in September.
Among the ousted ministers were chief cabinet secretary Hirokazu Matsuno, the government’s top spokesperson, and trade minister Yasutoshi Nishimura. Kishida also replaced a broad range of vice-ministers and the LDP’s policy chief.
For the chief cabinet secretary post, Kishida turned to former foreign minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, who belongs to an LDP faction previously led by the prime minister. He replaced his trade minister with former justice minister Ken Saitō.
There is no political stability without the trust of the people,” Kishida said on Wednesday as he promised to carry out reform with “a sense of crisis”.
“I will take the lead and fight to overhaul the workings of the Liberal Democratic party to restore trust in politics,” he added.
Prosecutors are investigating allegations that LDP politicians, mostly members of the powerful faction formerly headed by late prime minister Shinzo Abe, systematically failed to report roughly ¥500mn ($3.4mn) in political funding over a period of five years, Japanese media reported.
Some analysts said the practice of concealing political funds was more than two decades old and used to support weaker members of the Abe faction. Other factions appear to be affected, with media reports saying members of the faction formerly led by Kishida also failed to report some political funds, though prosecutors do not see it as systematic.
Analysts warned that the purge of ministers and other senior party officials belonging to the LDP’s biggest faction was a double-edged sword. The removal could concentrate power under Kishida but might also destabilise an administration that has relied heavily on the Abe faction’s backing.
Abe was the country’s longest-serving prime minister and shaped Japanese foreign and defence policies over the past decade. But his abrupt assassination last summer left his 99-member faction leaderless and struggling to exert the kind of influence displayed during the Abe era.
The funding scandal has contributed to a decline in Kishida’s popularity, which was already low due to public dissatisfaction with higher living costs and concerns the prime minister will raise taxes to fund planned increases in defence and childcare spending.
Public approval for Kishida’s administration has plummeted to 23 per cent, the lowest for any prime minister since 2012, according to a poll conducted by public broadcaster NHK last weekend.
While disgruntled members of the Abe faction could seek to undermine Kishida, Takao Toshikawa, editor-in-chief of political newsletter Insideline, said the funding scandal could work in the prime minister’s favour since the LDP would come under fire from the public if it openly engaged in factional infighting.
“A lot of people say Prime Minister Kishida is entering the closing days of his administration, but I actually think he will hold out,” Toshikawa said.
He noted one scenario would be for Kishida to call a snap election in March, with a campaign pledge to end the LDP’s factional politics. If he fails to revive his popularity, he and his cabinet may be forced to resign en masse after passing the budget at the end of the fiscal year in March.
The influence of LDP factions has waned since the mid-2000s as power has been consolidated under the prime minister’s office. Electoral reforms in the mid-1990s also reduced the role factions play in campaign finance.
But many MPs still join factions because they remain influential in the allocation of cabinet posts and other party positions. Factional jockeying remains a prominent feature of life in Tokyo’s political district of Nagatacho and has been central to LDP leadership and Japan’s postwar policies.
Analysts have compared the current situation with the Recruit shares-for-political-favours scandal in the late 1980s.
Masatoshi Honda, a political analyst and academic, said Kishida might survive the scandal but only because other senior members of the LDP would not want to take over at a time of such deep political turmoil.
“I think the reason why his approval rating fell was because it was unclear until now what Prime Minister Kishida wanted to do,” Honda said. “But ironically, if political reform emerges as a theme, it may actually give him an opportunity for a comeback.”