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Second in a series of six

“Always the bridesmaid, never the bride.” Although cliched, it may be the best way to describe prime ministerial hopeful Fumio Kishida. It also would not be the worst thing members of the government have said about the former foreign minister. To put it mildly, the general impression is that Kishida lacks the fortitude and will for leadership at the highest level.

Perhaps that was the reason why Kishida stood up against Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and threw his hat in the ring for the Liberal Democratic Party presidency when no one else would. In doing so, he toppled the first domino and set off a chain of events that ultimately brought down Suga, who no longer will seek re-election. This does not mean Kishida is the heir apparent, but it does prove that he might have more moxie than his critics argue.

Kishida’s decision to challenge Suga — who until late last week appeared resolved to stay in power — was not one that would have come lightly. Makoto Koga, Kishida’s former faction head and senior LDP member, argued that Kishida should have waited until after the Lower House election to make his move. Other senior members of Kishida’s faction within the LDP reportedly tried to dissuade him from making the run, seeing as there were other contentious issues to manage such as de-conflicting candidates for the upcoming general election.

At the same time, there were many in Kishida’s faction urging him to take immediate action. For them, it is now or never if Kishida wants to become prime minister. They are probably not wrong.

For years, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe kept promising Kishida that he would be the successor. This was an important promise to make, because Abe needed Kishida’s support in LDP presidential elections and certain foreign policy and security decisions made while Kishida was a member of his Cabinet. Kishida probably believed him, too, seeing as Abe allowed Kishida to become Japan’s longest-serving foreign minister, breaking the record his own father, Shintaro Abe, had previously held.

But Abe never really put Kishida on a long leash. In 2017, Abe moved Kishida to the LDP’s Policy Research Council Chair position. In the past, this was a powerful posting inside the LDP, but only if the chairperson had any backing from the top to run policy. Abe did no such thing. Instead, Kishida languished and was expected to support all the policies coming from the top instead of those being generated under his watch. In other words, Kishida was relegated to being nothing more than a patsy for the administration.

Despite this, Kishida remained loyal, sitting out the 2018 LDP presidential election and waiting patiently for his turn to come when Abe resigned in 2020. After announcing his resignation, Abe called Kishida into his office, informing him that Suga was the choice, not him.

Fumio Kishida, a former foreign minister, has pledged an economic package totaling tens of trillions of yen to contain the coronavirus as he prepares for the Liberal Democratic Party presidential election. | KYODO
Fumio Kishida, a former foreign minister, has pledged an economic package totaling tens of trillions of yen to contain the coronavirus as he prepares for the Liberal Democratic Party presidential election. | KYODO

Kishida ran in the 2020 LDP presidential race anyway, but that was a rigged affair. The party, fearing that former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba — who is unpopular among parliamentary LDP members but popular among the public — might stand a chance of winning under normal conditions, amended the rules for the election to reduce the number of votes from local chapters. The major LDP factions threw their weight behind Suga, and neither Ishiba nor Kishida stood a chance.

This election would be different. There is to be an equal number of votes allotted to local LDP chapters as sitting parliamentary members. While some will argue that the Hiroshima-based Kishida is not popular among local chapters, it was Suga — the politician who represents a district in Yokohama despite being born and raised in Akita — who was not a strong candidate among the LDP’s rural strongholds. If there were no other candidates in the mix, Kishida actually stood a good chance against Suga in the local LDP vote.

Further, Kishida had something that Suga simply could not offer: a promise for change. This change is not just a Cabinet reshuffle or a few policy tweaks, but a substantive break from the policy and legislative status quo that has remained unaltered for the past nine years.

Yes, Suga has only been in office for one year, but he was Shinzo Abe’s chief Cabinet Secretary for the eight years prior and has done little to distinguish himself from his predecessor save for the establishment of a new Digital Agency in the government.

So far in the race, Kishida has played the game well. He was resolute in announcing his candidacy unlike other potential challengers. This put him out front of the pack for now. Kishida then proceeded to meet with Shinzo Abe, Taro Aso and other LDP heavyweights to explain his positions and intent.

Kishida also exploited Suga’s plays. When Suga announced his intent to reshuffle LDP party leaders including LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, Kishida immediately reached out to Nikai’s faction members. A promise to take care of them in a Kishida-led Cabinet might have been enough to get the faction members to appeal to their own leader. Kishida also maintained a steady, level-headed approach to the race, while Suga started to entertain wilder and wilder options until the party withdrew its support writ large.

Although Kishida was able to topple the current administration, his victory is far from guaranteed. It now looks like he will have an able competitor in Taro Kono and an Abe-backed Sanae Takaichi with whom he must contend.

To beat his opponents, Kishida must accomplish a few things. First, he needs to stay the course on rolling out policy ideas and engaging with the press. He has a positional advantage but can lose it quickly if he does not continue to set the pace.

Second, he needs to work on gaining numerical support. The conventional logic would be to get the big factions on his side first, but with Takaichi and Kono jumping into the race, this is not the wisest play. Kishida needs to engage the bigger factions from a position of strength, meaning he needs to secure more votes first.

To do so, Kishida has to employ a grassroots approach. He needs to champion policies that will get the local LDP chapters to support him over Kono or other competitors, which probably means a lot of pork barrel promises (i.e. money) for outlying prefectures. Kishida’s announced stimulus package is a good start, but that will need clarity so the local chapters understand how that money will flow to their constituencies.

Among the LDP’s parliamentary members, Kishida will have to build enough support throughout the lower levels so that the big heavyweights cannot ignore him. First, this means getting Shigeru Ishiba and Nobuteru Ishihara’s factions on his side. In theory, this should not be so difficult because they have been largely marginalized under the Abe and Suga governments. In practice, it will be tough if Ishiba decides to run again or if he sides with the reform-minded Kono.

Kishida will then need to continue courting the Nikai faction. Nikai may have taken Kishida’s calls for a three-year term limit as a personal affront, but Nikai is also a political animal whose loyalties lie with whoever can deliver the greatest benefit to him. Nikai will not like any of the candidates to succeed Suga, but Kishida may be his least worst option.

After that, Kishida needs to set his sights on the Takeshita faction — the third largest in the LDP and comprised of members like Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and former trade minister Yuko Obuchi. He may not be able to get the whole faction to side with him, but if he can split it like what happened in 2018, Kishida will improve his chances greatly.

There is one last hurdle: how does Kishida silence those critics inside the LDP who argue that he is the weaker candidate for leading the party in the Lower House election? To answer that question, Kishida needs to play to his own strengths and focus on his opponent’s weaknesses.

Kishida may not be the most exciting candidate, but he is noncontroversial. The LDP does not need a candidate who can generate extra voters; the party’s election machine actually operates more successfully when voter turnout is low. Instead, the LDP just needs someone who is not so polarizing that the public comes out in droves to vote for the opposition.

Kishida is also more manageable from a party perspective. He plays the old guard LDP political game and has a solid base of supporters in terms of competence and remaining relatively scandal-free. These are all selling points that his challengers do not have to offer.

Will Kishida be able to maintain his momentum in announcing new policy, building his support base, and keeping his opponents off-balance? If ever there was a time for Kishida to silence his critics and prove his mettle once and for all, this is it.

Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He previously served in the Japanese government as a Mansfield fellow.

Read more of “The LDP’s game of thrones” series.

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