Japan’s Kishida Struggles in Polls Ahead of Special Elections

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(Bloomberg) -- A high-profile trip to meet Joe Biden in Washington failed to provide a substantial poll boost for Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, fueling doubts over whether his ruling party can eke out a special election victory that could be key to his longevity as leader.

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Despite a largely positive response to his summit this month with Biden, three surveys conducted over the weekend showed approval for Kishida’s cabinet was still well below the 30% threshold often seen as marking the danger zone for a Japanese premier. Polls carried out by the Asahi and Mainichi newspapers found support had ticked up by four and five percentage points, respectively, versus the previous month, while the Yomiuri newspaper found approval unchanged at 25%.

Hamstrung by a series of scandals and simmering discontent over inflation, Kishida’s long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party faces the prospect of losing all three contested seats on April 28, a blow that could undermine his chances of being voted in for another three-year term as party leader in September.

The LDP didn’t field candidates for two of the seats — one in Tokyo and one in the southwestern city of Nagasaki — up for grabs after LDP lawmakers in those districts resigned over separate scandals. The party’s candidate is also lagging his opposition rival in the rural prefecture of Shimane, a traditional LDP stronghold, according to polling by Kyodo News and other media.

A swath of recent polls have shown dissatisfaction with Kishida’s handling of a slush fund scandal. The premier ordered two senior lawmakers seen as among the worst offenders to resign from the party and imposed lesser penalties on dozens of others. Nearly two-thirds of respondents to the Yomiuri survey said it was inappropriate that Kishida himself was not punished.

“I apologize sincerely for causing distrust in politics,” Kishida said in a speech to voters in Shimane during a visit to support LDP candidate Norimasa Nishikori, which was shown by broadcast news network FNN at the weekend. “I want to travel the difficult road to restoring trust.”

The scandal has angered a public already unhappy with the pace of price rises. Japan’s household spending slid for a 12th consecutive month in February, as price hikes continued to outpace wage gains. While Kishida has pledged to achieve incomes that outpace price rises this year, more than 83% of respondents to the Yomiuri poll said they didn’t expect their lives to improve.

Speculation Kishida could call a general election to renew his mandate ahead of the party leadership vote would be damped by a loss in Shimane. Yet surveys show dissatisfaction with the LDP hasn’t translated into widespread enthusiasm for the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party. Support for the CDP remained in single figures in two of the weekend polls, while ticking up by two percentage points to 15% in the Mainichi survey.

--With assistance from Ryotaro Nakamaru.

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