(Bloomberg) -- Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida defied calls for a general election in the first party leaders’ debate since he came to office, which came as his support hits record lows. 

Kenta Izumi, leader of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party, urged Kishida to seek voters’ verdict on political funding reform measures that passed parliament on Wednesday, calling them a failure. Other opposition party leaders, including Nobuyuki Baba of the Japan Innovation Party, urged Kishida to step down.

Kishida pushed back, saying he wanted to focus on tackling issues including the economy and to fulfill his responsibility as leader to restore trust in politics. 

The prime minister’s chances of leading his long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party into the next election look to be fading, with two polls over the weekend showing voter approval at its lowest since he took office in 2021. Three months ahead of a party leadership race, he’s struggling to mollify a public angered by a series of scandals, despite voter-friendly measures including a tax rebate. 

No general election needs to be called until 2025, but a poll by the Asahi newspaper conducted June 15-16 found 24% of those surveyed would vote for the LDP if it were held right away, compared with 19% for the CDP. The LDP has suffered losses in special parliamentary elections and a local gubernatorial race and refrained from fielding its own candidate for the July 7 election to pick the governor of Tokyo. 

Criticism is even beginning to emerge from within the ruling party, with LDP lawmaker Hiroaki Saito this week accusing Kishida of not taking responsibility. Much-criticized legislation meant to clamp down on political slush funds — which Kishida set out as a priority — passed earlier in the day.  

Another factor playing into the timing of the general election may be the diplomatic agenda. Kishida is widely expected to head to Washington in July for a NATO summit along with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol. The two nations and the US are aiming to formalize their security partnership before the US presidential election. Kishida may also visit Germany the same month, public broadcaster NHK reported Tuesday. 

While no one from the LDP has publicly thrown their hat into the ring to replace Kishida, the Asahi poll found former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba was the most popular candidate to become the next prime minister, with 22% of respondents picking him. Former Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi was second with 16%. Both politicians have distanced themselves from the current government. 

(Updates from first paragraph with calls for a general election.)

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