By John Geddie and Kiyoshi Takenaka
TOKYO (Reuters) – Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has seen his public support drop to levels that typically marked the end for some of his predecessors. Yet the 66-year-old former banker has shown an uncanny ability to ride out scandals during his two years in office.
Kishida this week purged several ministers from his cabinet as prosecutors’ investigate whether lawmakers from his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) received millions of dollars in proceeds from fund-raising events that were kept off the books.
Below are a few scenarios describing how the next few days, weeks and months could play out for the embattled premier.
STEPS DOWN SOON
Just 17% of respondents to a Jiji poll released on Thursday said they backed Kishida’s administration, the lowest for any premier in more than a decade.
His chances of surviving in the near term depend on whether the criminal investigations into his party implicate him in any way, some analysts say.
For now, according to media reports, the investigation centres on lawmakers in the LDP’s powerful “Abe faction”, named for assassinated premier Shinzo Abe, to which all the ministers axed in this week’s purge belong.
But prosecutors are also examining if other LDP factions, including the one Kishida led until last week, are involved, the reports said.
Kishida this week said he had instructed staff to look into any discrepancies and take “appropriate action” as needed.
The cabinet shake-up – his third in 16 months – has showed no sign of arresting a slide in his ratings.
SURVIVES UNTIL LEADERSHIP RACE
Support for the LDP, which has ruled for nearly all of Japan’s post-war history, is also at its lowest since 2012, recent polls show. But a fractured opposition has historically struggled to make sustained inroads into its dominance.
With no clear contender emerging from his party to replace him, and a general election not due until October 2025 at the latest, it is possible Kishida could survive at least until his party’s leadership contest in September.
As well as the cloud of the probe hanging over several factions from which would-be challengers could emerge, whoever steps into the breach has to make difficult and potentially unpopular choices.
Top of that worry list is how to finance billions of dollars needed for a historic military build-up at a time when households are struggling with price rises not seen in decades.
The most popular politicians among the public – Shigeru Ishiba, an outspoken former defence minister, and Shinjiro Koizumi, the telegenic scion of an influential political family – do not belong to factions or have the backing of party heavyweights making it difficult for them to win the leadership ticket.
Taro Kono, a political maverick who Kishida defeated in the last leadership run-off, has become embroiled in a messy rollout of a national identity scheme that has dented his chances.
REVIVES HIS POPULARITY
If Kishida does get a ratings bounce, it is the prime minister’s prerogative to call an election at any time.
He could gamble that securing a strong mandate from the electorate would encourage his party to keep him on as leader.
The premier has survived scandals before.
In 2022, links emerged between lawmakers in his party and a controversial religious group which led to his first cabinet shake-up. Last May, he had to sack his own son, who he had appointed as his executive secretary.
Most analysts think a revival in his fortunes is the least likely scenario and that if he makes it through to September’s leadership vote he may decide not to run again.
Vying to become Japan’s first female prime minister, Harvard-educated foreign minister Yoko Kamikawa or hardline conservative Sanae Takaichi could be among his leadership rivals if he does decide to stand.
(Reporting by John Geddie and Takenaka Kiyoshi; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)