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When former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida announced his bid to run for the post of Liberal Democratic Party president, he did not hesitate to take a swing not only at Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga but also Toshihiro Nikai, the LDP’s powerful secretary-general.

As part of putting himself forward, Kishida proposed imposing a term limit of up to three consecutive years on party executives. Although masked by his signature soft-spoken, mellow tone, this was a declaration of war against Nikai — who lays claim to the longest run as secretary-general in the party’s history.

The secretary-general is an obvious target, as he is unpopular among some lawmakers for his particularly cozy relationship with Suga, and conservatives take umbrage with his pro-China stance.

So when media reports emerged late Monday night that Nikai had agreed to the prime minister’s proposal for a party executive reshuffle, which would see the secretary-general leaving his job, political operatives in Tokyo and pundits alike saw the surprise development as a calculated move to puncture Kishida’s momentum.

Suga is reportedly going to shake up the executive as early as next week.

“It certainly is a bad sign for Kishida,” said Tobias Harris, the senior fellow for Asia at the Center for American Progress.

The most crucial element for a Suga victory is eliminating any chance that former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso — influential heavyweights who essentially play a kingmaker role together — would throw their support behind Kishida.

Since the duo considers Nikai a political rival, the logic of Suga cutting off Nikai to lock up their support is “straightforward,” Harris said.

Former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida attends a news conference in Tokyo on Thursday to announce his candidacy in the Liberal Democratic Party presidential election. | REUTERS
Former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida attends a news conference in Tokyo on Thursday to announce his candidacy in the Liberal Democratic Party presidential election. | REUTERS

In being a sacrificial lamb, at least ostensibly, Nikai has prioritized Suga’s re-election prospects in the presidential race for the sake of party unity, meaning that LDP lawmakers dissatisfied with the prime minister’s performance can solidify their support for him amid languishing public approval ratings. And by making Suga feel indebted, Nikai may be plotting a way to maintain some degree of power after an upcoming general election.

While the future looks uncertain for the 82-year-old secretary-general, it would be premature to write him off based on his departure, as the move could be seen as politically savvy way of avoiding responsibility if the LDP loses in the general election.

Along with the party president, new executives would be the face of the LDP in the general election. The selection would reflect Suga’s state of mind, with the lineup focusing on developing a fresh appeal to voters or emphasizing the factional distribution of power within the party.

The LDP will hold its vote to choose its next president on Sept. 29.

In last week’s news conference, Kishida highlighted public anger at the party’s performance, including over the coronavirus response. Suga’s approval rating has slumped to the politically precarious 30% range in multiple polls.

Younger lawmakers without a solid support base in their district, who consequently face a tight contest, have been increasingly apprehensive about entering the general election campaign with Suga as party leader.

In a nod to those worries, Kishida vowed to institute the limit on party executive terms and promote young- and middle-level lawmakers over heavyweights.

“We have to (limit the terms) from the standpoint of avoiding concentrations of power … and for the LDP to stay as a political party that can renew itself,” Kishida told reporters Sunday.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks during a news conference in Tokyo on Aug. 25. | POOL / VIA REUTERS
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks during a news conference in Tokyo on Aug. 25. | POOL / VIA REUTERS

Kishida’s campaign pledge provoked Nikai as expected — the secretary-general described the proposal as “insulting” in an interview with Kyodo News published Monday. Nikai has been critical of Kishida, who was a policy council chairman under Abe. Kishida’s botched coordination within the LDP membership and with junior partner Komeito over a cash handout last year hurt his reputation.

That poor job performance, as well as Kishida running against Suga in the LDP presidential contest last year, similarly reinforced Suga’s doubts about Kishida. After becoming prime minister, Suga banished Kishida from both his Cabinet and the party executive.

Currently, the party executive’s term is one year, but there are no limits on reappointment. The secretary-general is considered to be particularly powerful, perhaps even more so than the president, because they can decide which candidate to officially endorse in an election and they have discretion over party finances and personnel, including division heads and deputy heads.

Nikai has been in his current position since August 2016, and Suga consistently recommended his reappointment to then-Prime Minister Abe. Suga and Nikai developed a close bond because they are both politicians who have climbed up the ranks from the bottom, starting as local assembly members.

When Abe decided to step down for health reasons in September last year, Suga, who was considering a run to be the party’s next leader, first turned to Nikai for support. In exchange for receiving it, Suga kept Nikai on as secretary-general.

Toshihiro Nikai, secretary-general of the Liberal Democratic Party, at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in 2018 | POOL / VIA REUTERS
Toshihiro Nikai, secretary-general of the Liberal Democratic Party, at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in 2018 | POOL / VIA REUTERS

Mirroring that move, Nikai attempted to seize the initiative last week by announcing that his faction will endorse Suga’s re-election. But that gesture appeared to have been made without gaining a consensus within Nikai’s faction, making some members irate at his decision.

After becoming party president in September last year, Suga picked prominent veteran lawmakers from mainstream factions as party executives to suppress complaints of unfairness. However, non-Nikai faction members have been increasingly irritated by Nikai’s continued occupation of the position and his reluctance to relinquish authority.

Kishida’s candidacy thus could have consolidated votes from lawmakers and rank-and-file members who dislike both Suga and Nikai.

It may be too early to draw the conclusion that Nikai’s departure is a defeat. If the LDP loses dozens of seats in the general election, party executives would inevitably have to take responsibility. By stepping down before the Lower House vote, Nikai can minimize any damage to his career and ultimately escape any blame over his endorsement of LDP candidates.

“There’s also the reality that the party has to do something to change its fortunes before the election,” Harris said. “If it’s not going to replace Suga, replacing the secretary-general — presumably with someone younger and more telegenic — could only help.”

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