Plagued by an unfolding political fundraising scandal that has engulfed several factions of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party, the future of Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is in doubt for 2024, the year its leadership race is to be held.

But clear moves to replace Kishida as the LDP's president may not be seen until the initial budget for the fiscal year from April 2024 is passed in parliament under his administration, with the interim period likely to be used to seek out a popular successor, political pundits said.

With the public growing increasingly weary of financial scandals in politics involving factions within the LDP, unaffiliated lawmakers are expected to come under the spotlight as potential candidates for the leadership position, they said.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida attends a press conference at the premier's office in Tokyo on Dec. 13, 2023. (Kyodo)

In the first half of 2023, much attention was paid to when Kishida would dissolve the House of Representatives, as he apparently sought to bolster his political clout by winning a snap election before the LDP presidential race scheduled for September 2024.

The four-year terms of current lower house members will expire in October 2025 unless a prime minister dissolves the chamber.

After Kishida hosted a Group of Seven summit in May in his home constituency of Hiroshima, speculation about a dissolution surged further, as he gained popularity by pitching his vision of a world without nuclear weapons in the first city to be struck by an atomic bomb.

Nevertheless, his approval ratings continued plummeting later in 2023 against a backdrop of increasing public frustration over soaring prices, coupled with insufficient wage growth and a series of scandals involving his government and LDP officials.

A crucial blow was the recent uncovering of a secret slush funds scandal involving five major LDP factions, including the fourth-largest group headed by Kishida until early December, all of which are alleged to have underreported revenue from political fundraising events.

Among them, the largest faction, previously led by slain former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is suspected of having pooled hundreds of millions of yen from fundraising party revenues that its members raised from ticket sales to create secret slush funds.

Prosecutors have started investigating the Abe faction and another one headed by former Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai on suspicion of violating the political funds control law, taking a heavy toll on the LDP and Kishida's administration.

The approval rating for Kishida's Cabinet tumbled to a fresh low of 22.3 percent in the latest survey by Kyodo News in mid-December, well below 30 percent, widely regarded as the "danger level" for a government. The support rate for the LDP also plunged.

Masahiro Iwasaki, a political science professor at Nihon University, said Kishida "cannot do anything to change the status quo," with some other analysts agreeing that his low popular support has fanned expectations that he will step down sometime soon.

Many LDP lawmakers, however, are unlikely to try to oust Kishida as the party's chief at least until the passage of the draft budget, as they likely want to compel him to take full responsibility for the funds scandal, which is certain to be scrutinized in parliament.

If the LDP selects a new leader, who would be the next prime minister due to its dominance in the Diet, he or she would face a grilling by the opposition camp over the scandal in the upcoming ordinary parliamentary session from January, denting the new administration.

Kishida has been invited to the United States by President Joe Biden as a state guest in early 2024, which will likely be treated as his "graduation trip," one of the analysts said, adding he would be unable to run in the next LDP leadership election.

Around the time of Kishida's state visit to the United States, possibly in March, battles to become the next LDP president and prime minister are set to intensify.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida enters the premier's office in Tokyo on Dec. 27, 2023. (Kyodo) ==Kyodo

Former Prime Minister Taro Aso, who worked behind the scenes as a "kingmaker" to establish Kishida's government, has been aiming to promote LDP Secretary General Toshimitsu Motegi, a veteran lawmaker, as the party's leader, sources close to them said.

Such a development indicates that the factions led by Aso and Motegi, two powerful LDP groups that have been prominent since the Kishida administration was launched in October 2021, have ditched the prime minister, the analysts said.

Iwasaki, meanwhile, said that unaffiliated lawmakers are supposed to play a significant role in shaping a new LDP down the road in light of the public's negative perception of money scandals involving the ruling party's factions.

LDP factions have traditionally provided their members with election funding and recommended them for ministerial posts. Critics have pointed out that the groups having such functions within the party have prompted them to generate secret funds through fundraising events and other means.

Given the public's distrust of LDP members who belong to factions, one of the frontrunners for becoming the party's new leader is former Secretary General Shigeru Ishiba, an unaffiliated lawmaker who ranks top as a future prime minister in some media polls, Iwasaki said.

Despite his popularity among voters, Ishiba has struggled to garner support from ruling lawmakers as he once left the party in an attempt to topple the then LDP-led government in 1993. Since returning in 1997, he has lost the LDP presidential race four times.

But lawmakers might back Ishiba as the leader to "weather the current situation and win the next lower house election, regardless of their personal preferences, based on the LDP's way of thinking" which consists of members jumping on the bandwagon, Iwasaki said.

Shinichi Nishikawa, a political science professor at Meiji University, said the next premier may carefully consider the timing of dissolving the lower house until the funds scandal subsides while keeping an eye on the movement of the opposition bloc.

"The LDP will wait until opposition parties become divided again, although they have been united recently amid the tremendous scandal," Nishikawa said.

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