Heavyweights Jostle to Lead LDP into a Suga-Free Diet Election
Dr. Daniel M. Smith, Gerald L. Curtis Visiting Associate Professor of Modern Japanese Politics and Foreign Policy, Columbia University
In the previous post of Japan Political Pulse, Gerry Curtis asked whether Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga would survive, or “become yet another name on a long list of short lived Japanese prime ministers.” It didn’t take long to learn the answer. On September 3, Suga abruptly announced his intention not to run in the upcoming Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) presidential contest on September 29, effectively setting the end date for his term as party leader and prime minister. Despite a few successful policy initiatives, such as the creation of the Digital Agency and other reforms, Suga will join the club of ephemeral prime ministers who passed in and out of the office in little more than a year.
Suga’s resignation was precipitated by his cabinet’s poor public approval rating, with a low of 26% support reported in an August 29 poll by Mainichi Shimbun. Japan’s athletes winning a record number of gold medals at the Tokyo Olympics did not provide enough of a positive news cycle to help him overcome the increasingly negative public mood surrounding his administration’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccine rollout. Publicly, Suga’s stated reason for not running for another term as party leader was so that he could focus on the pandemic response. But it was obvious that political calculations within the LDP were central, since whoever wins the leadership election will not only become Japan’s next prime minister, but will also lead the LDP in the upcoming general election for the House of Representatives.
The current term of the House of Representatives expires on October 21, and the next election must be held no later than November 28. Suga’s low popularity had created considerable anxiety among younger and electorally vulnerable members of the LDP, and presented an opportunity for the opposition to potentially slim down the ruling coalition’s supermajority. Until Suga’s abrupt announcement, some pundits even questioned whether the LDP could retain majority control of the Diet without the seats its coalition partner, Komeito. Now, anything might happen.
A few party heavyweights have already jumped into the leadership race, eager to replace Suga. Ironically, one of the top contenders for the job is Taro Kono, Minister for Administrative Reform and Regulatory Reform, and special minister of state in charge of the vaccine. Kono has the support of the powerful Aso faction, led by Minister of Finance and former prime minister Taro Aso. He has also received Suga’s endorsement, as well as that of popular Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi. Shigeru Ishiba, who is popular among voters and party members in local branches, has also decided to support Kono rather than throw his own hat in the ring.
One consideration is how much blame Kono will get––either from his opponents within the LDP, or in the general election if he wins the leadership contest––for the relatively slow vaccine rollout. On September 7, he revealed in an interview that a reason for the delay in administering the Pfizer vaccine was that the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare insisted on rerunning clinical trials in Japan, despite the fact that Japanese nationals living in the US were included in Pfizer’s initial clinical trials, due to concerns over differences in diet in the US and Japan. It may be difficult to pin this and other setbacks on him, however, as Suga has already absorbed the bulk of responsibility for the government’s pandemic policies.
Kono faces competition from Fumio Kishida, who served as Minister of Foreign Affairs under former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and leads of his own (smaller) faction. Kishida entered the race even before Suga bowed out, and made several policy statements to appeal to conservatives in the party, including hawkish positions on responding to a potential crisis scenario in Taiwan and building a missile-strike capability against potential threats from China and North Korea. He has also proposed a large economic recovery package.
Unlike Suga, Kono and Kishida both come from long-standing political dynasties, which have dominated positions of power in Japan. Since the administration of Kiichi Miyazawa (1991-1993) all of the LDP’s party presidents and prime ministers have come from powerful family dynasties (nearly all with a history in cabinet roles, too), with the two exceptions of Yoshiro Mori (whose family nevertheless had local political roots) and Suga. The election of either candidate would continue this pattern.
A third major contender is Sanae Takaichi, a conservative protégé of Abe. Takaichi does not come from a political dynasty, and has taken a more circuitous route to party leadership, having first been elected as an independent in the 1993 general election, and then running under the New Frontier Party (NFP) banner for the 1996 general election before finally entering the LDP. She served in various cabinet roles in the first and second Abe administrations, most notably as the Minister for Internal Affairs and Communications from 2014 to 2017, and again from 2019 to 2020. Abe has announced his support for her candidacy, but the Hosoda faction to which he belongs may not be united behind him. If Takaichi is successful, she would become Japan’s first female prime minister, and would certainly shake up the general election campaign.
Between now and September 29, other challengers may emerge and gain traction, but the early contest looks to be between these three. A big uncertainty is that only half of the votes in the presidential election will be cast by the party’s Diet members. The other half will be cast by rank-and-file party members in local branches. To win, a candidate needs a majority of all votes. As in previous contests, it’s possible that the leading candidate in each electorate will not be the same person, or that no candidate wins a majority and a second round of voting is required, with allegiances shifting between votes.
A second uncertainty is how younger LDP members and those most vulnerable to lose their seats (such as those elected through the party’s proportional representation lists) will vote. In past elections, such members have been most likely to bolt their parties. So far, it’s unlikely that the risk of staying in the LDP will outweigh the risk of joining Ishin or some other conservative party that forms between now and the election. But will they simply follow the cues of their faction leaders and kingmakers like Abe? Or will they wager on the candidate who seems to have the most public appeal or momentum to raise the party’s (and their own) prospects in the election?
Meanwhile, four opposition parties––the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, Japanese Communist Party, Social Democratic Party, and Reiwa Shinsengumi––have announced an agreement on a set of common policies heading into the election.  Apart from an unsurprising rejection of the national security policies of the Abe and Suga administrations, common ground has been reached on several domestic policy visions, including COVID-19 response, poverty reduction, transitioning to nuclear-free energy, gender equality, and government transparency. While some of the policy items are vague, the agreement may form the basis for coordinated messaging in the campaign. Past survey research suggests that, while voters are polarized on national security issues, the LDP’s domestic policy agenda tends to be less popular, especially among uncommitted, floating voters.
This policy cooperation follows earlier and ongoing efforts to coordinate candidacies in the single-member district (SMD) contests, so as not to split the opposition and allow the LDP or Komeito to win seats with only a plurality of votes. Of the 465 seats to be filled, 289 (62%) are filled through the SMD contests, with the remaining seats filled by proportional representation in multimember districts. Some analyses suggest that a unified opposition in SMDs could cost the ruling coalition as many as 60 seats.
However, achieving SMD victories through coordination may depend on the LDP’s popularity continuing to sag. For the opposition, therefore, Suga’s resignation is a political setback. In previous elections, the opposition has fared best when voter dissatisfaction with the LDP is high, turnout of irregular voters who tend to favor change over the status quo is high, and competition between opposition parties within SMDs is managed. Meanwhile, reshuffles of cabinets and new prime ministers tend to get a temporary boost in public support. And between now and October, media excitement will be focused on the LDP and its leadership contest.
Will the LDP’s new leader reverse the party’s lackluster support, or will the opposition manage to pose a serious challenge to the LDP’s continued dominance? We’ll find out over the next several weeks!
 Mainichi Shimbun. https://mainichi.jp/articles/20210828/k00/00m/010/251000c
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 Nyblade, Benjamin. 2013. “Keeping It Together: Party Unity and the 2012 Election.” In Robert Pekkanen, Steven R. Reed, and Ethan Scheiner (eds.), Japan Decides 2012: The Japanese General Election, pp. 20-33. Palgrave Macmillan. https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1057/9781137346124_3
 Asahi Shimbun. https://www.asahi.com/articles/ASP986S9PP98UTFK014.html
 Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan. https://cdp-japan.jp/files/download/887E/m254/iPv9/apxG/887Em254iPv9apxGOe6OEhxQ.pdf
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