from Asia Unbound

The Prime Minister has Left the Race

On September 3, the prime minister visited LDP headquarters and announced he would withdraw from the race.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga arrives to meet with president of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) Andrew Parsons in Tokyo, September 3, 2021, following his announcement that he will not seek re-election for Liberal Democratic Party leadership.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga arrives to meet with president of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) Andrew Parsons in Tokyo, September 3, 2021, following his announcement that he will not seek re-election for Liberal Democratic Party leadership. Behrouz Mehri/Pool via REUTERS

Last week, Prime Minister Suga kept everyone on their toes by first suggesting he might suddenly dissolve the Diet and then not even a day later deciding to reshuffle the LDP party posts and his Cabinet instead. The result was undoubtedly not what he expected. Uproar within the party led to reports that at least one of the Aso-Abe duo opposed his plan. On September 3, the prime minister visited LDP headquarters and announced he would withdraw from the race.

The party election on September 29 is now a far different referendum.  No longer focusing on Suga’s declining popularity, LDP members must consider who has the best chance at salvaging the party in the upcoming Lower House election. Managing COVID’s complexities has not been easy, and Suga may be the first democratic leader to fall to the public health crisis.  But there is more to the current unrest within the LDP.  For many younger Diet members, the old-style factional machinations that have been at play seem antiquated and frustrating. They are also hazardous to the LDP’s image at the polls, as several recent by-elections revealed.

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An increasing share of the LDP are young and in their first or second terms.  Of the LDP 276 members in the Lower House, 126 or 46% are in their third term in office or less.  That means they came into office in the 2012, 2014, or 2017 Lower House elections when the party was led by Abe. This younger generation was reportedly deeply unhappy at the prospect of facing re-election under Suga given his low approval rate. 

Chart of Number of Terms for LDP Members

Source: Compiled based on information available from Japan’s House of Representatives website

But they have also been unhappy with the dominance of older factional leaders in determining who will lead the party.

Chart of LEP Factions

Source: Yomiuri Shimbun 9/7/21

LDP presidents are elected by two groups: Diet members and the rank and file of the party. This election will see an initial vote with each group assigned 383 votes for a total of 766 votes.  Should one candidate take the majority, that candidate will win. But with multiple contenders, a second round is usually necessary.  The candidates with the greater popularity will likely garner the support of party rank and file, whereas Diet members in the past have voted along factional lines. Personal loyalties pervade, but so too does the calculation that any future LDP leader will reward factional support with Cabinet positions. This leaves little room for policy debate or reform, and these LDP leadership elections rarely feature new ideas or innovations.  Up and coming LDP Diet members want to change that.

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Since last week, the question of who will run and who will support which candidate has dominated the headlines. Media polling reveals the strongest contender in the public’s eye is Taro Kono (Aso faction), followed by Shigeru Ishiba (Ishiba faction) – long popular with the party’s rank and file, and then Fumio Kishida (Kishida faction), the already declared contender that helped dethrone Suga last week.

Chart of Polling Data

Source: Nikkei 7/26/21; Kyodo News 9/5/21; Yomiuri Shimbun 9/5/21
Factional dynamics are not what they once were, however.  Younger members of the Hosoda (where Abe belongs) and Aso factions, the two largest factions of the LDP with 96 and 53 members, respectively, are signaling they may not line-up behind their leaders.  Similarly, rumors suggest that the most popular LDP Diet members, namely Ishiba and Shinjiro Koizumi, are aligning themselves with what many are calling the most likely next generation candidate, Taro Kono. There are others to consider.  Two women, neither attached to a faction, are being discussed.  The first, Sanae Takaichi, apparently favored by former prime minister Abe due to her conservative positions on economic policy, security, and constitutional revision, has publicly stated her interest.  The second possibility being discussed is Seiko Noda, a highly respected centrist with a deeper resume of party responsibility, having served as Chairperson of the General Council and Chairperson of the Research Commission on Consumer Issues within the LDP. Both will need the signatures of at least 20 LDP members to enter the race.

It is too early to place your bets. Another week or so of internal LDP consultations to go before the final list of contenders will be ready to campaign.  Again, stay tuned…