First in a series of six

Until a year ago, Japan had enjoyed nearly eight years of unprecedented political stability under the rule of then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Before that, the world’s third largest economy had undergone political tumult, doing away with six prime ministers in as many years. After returning to power in 2012, Abe was able to restore and maintain power partly after cementing his position within the Liberal Democratic Party, with virtually nobody being able to challenge him.

But the dynamics in the LDP started to change after Abe abruptly resigned last year and Yoshihide Suga took over the helm. Suga initially enjoyed a 62% approval rating — only to see that quickly fizzle before his own eyes, having to deal with surging waves of the pandemic — and the Olympic and Paralympic Games doing little to buoy his standing among the public.

Suga’s struggles opened the door for competitors to make moves inside the party. A battle for power is taking place right now — but who is involved, what do they want and what will it take for them to come out on top?

Last Thursday evening, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga walked into Liberal Democratic Party Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai’s office to announce his candidacy for the party’s presidential race. The next morning, Suga had a meeting with party leaders, walked out, and a few hours later succinctly confirmed reports that he would not be seeking another term.

So, what happened? For the past two weeks, there were rumors about party leadership and Cabinet reshuffles, early dissolution of the Lower House and other political moves that Suga could be engineering to preserve his place atop the government. It seemed clear that Suga had no intent to go gentle into that good night. And yet, here we are, awaiting a change in administration in Japan.

The situation unfolding is dynamic, complex, and unprecedented. There are going to be more twists and turns before it is over, and while there are many ways to look at a saga like this, sometimes the best thing to do is to view it from the vantage point of those actually involved in this LDP-style game of thrones.

It is only natural to start with the prime minister and LDP president himself: Yoshihide Suga. He has served in those roles for almost a year now, and it became clear last month that there were forces inside his own party who wanted him out. It was on Suga to find ways to halt those challengers and reaffirm his base of support, but even his famously grueling work ethic could not help him overcome his political weaknesses.

Love him or hate him, there is one undeniable fact about Suga: no LDP politician works harder. There was a recent news story about Suga having worked every day since March this year, but this is a man who has been working almost every day without a break since taking the chief Cabinet secretary post in December 2012. He weathered many storms for the Abe administration and shepherded the government through multiple crises, both natural and man-made.

His work ethic is not the only thing that sets him apart. A self-made man, Suga does not come from a political dynasty like Shinzo Abe, Taro Aso, Taro Kono and Shinjiro Koizumi. He also eschewed the factional ties that have helped elevate mediocre politicians to prominent roles.

Instead, Suga chose a different path through individual relationships and outhustling his competition. In doing so, he became the first LDP prime minister to serve without belonging to one of the party’s formal factions.

Yoshihide Suga sits in the chair of president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party at the party's headquarters office in Tokyo on Sept. 14, 2020, the day he was elected the party's president. | KYODO
Yoshihide Suga sits in the chair of president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party at the party’s headquarters office in Tokyo on Sept. 14, 2020, the day he was elected the party’s president. | KYODO

However admirable his trailblazing, it left Suga disadvantaged. He was a compromise candidate last year meant to preserve continuity after Abe’s abrupt resignation. Suga does not have the institutional backing that any of his LDP predecessors had when they were prime minister — all of them had a faction of supporters within the party that were singularly beholden to them.

To succeed in keeping his job, Suga needed to achieve two objectives, exploring every possible option at his disposal to overcome his institutional disadvantages. Ironically, though, it was Suga’s all-in approach that led to his undoing.

First, he had to shore up the necessary votes to win the LDP presidential race. He would have hoped to run uncontested, but former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida denied him that privilege, forcing him to start seeking supporters.

The two most important players Suga needed were Abe and Aso. Abe is part of the LDP’s largest faction and has strong ties with those in the LDP’s third largest group — the Takeshita faction — while Aso leads the party’s second largest faction. Their firm backing would have gotten Suga very close to the magic number he needed to secure a victory in the election. While they initially alluded to their support, they remained noncommittal.

Their reluctance to commit to Suga opened an irreparable seam. Like a run on the bank, the lack of confidence shown by two of Suga’s most important backers caused others inside the LDP to consider withdrawing their own commitments, and a frenzy followed.

That frenzy was tied in part to Suga’s second goal: to drum up goodwill with the public before the Lower House election. His administration’s public approval ratings are below where the LDP would like them to be going into a general election, and junior politicians and proportional representation candidates become vulnerable when the party’s public standing starts to falter.

Voices inside the LDP grew louder that the party needed to right the ship before the Lower House election, meaning that Suga needed to rebrand his administration and present something new and exciting to a public that has been increasingly unhappy with his government’s policies.

Unfortunately for Suga, he was unable to bring the party in line while generating momentum for a general election. Instead, he started to flail, and we saw all sorts of bold moves being floated, all intended to influence the party to get behind him. Those plays were reactionary, and ultimately exacerbated the LDP’s waning confidence in him.

When LDP Policy Research Council Chairperson Hakubun Shimomura indicated his intent to run for party presidency last month, Suga called him into his office for a private meeting. While most of the content of that meeting went undisclosed, there was word that Suga presented a threat and an offer to Shimomura: If Shimomura ran for party president and lost, he would lose the opportunity to build an economic stimulus package that Suga planned to present ahead of the Lower House election, but if he relinquished his challenge, the package would be his to craft. Shimomura left that meeting and immediately announced that he would not run against Suga.

Yoshihide Suga is applauded after being elected as the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's president on Sept. 14, 2020. | KYODO
Yoshihide Suga is applauded after being elected as the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s president on Sept. 14, 2020. | KYODO

It may have been a good play to get Shimomura out of the running, but that economic stimulus package was exactly the type of policy boost Suga himself needed to roll out quickly. Instead, Kishida beat him to the punch, promising tens of trillions of yen in stimulus money to counter the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Then, when Kishida proposed putting a term limit on LDP executives, Suga responded by deciding to replace LDP Secretary-General Nikai and other party leaders.

Nikai had served as Secretary-General for over five years, and his heavy-handed approach and impertinent dealings with other LDP members has left many disgruntled at the fact that he has served as the party’s de facto number two leader for so long. Getting rid of Nikai was supposed to be a way to appease those people — not least of which being Abe and Aso, the two supporters Suga needed most.

This was a ruthless move for Suga, considering it was Nikai who engineered his victory last year. To turn around and cut Nikai loose now to salvage his own job is a type of politicking many did not expect from “Uncle Reiwa,” not least of which were Nikai’s own faction members, who Kishida immediately began to court. (It was Suga who publicly unveiled the name of the new imperial era, Reiwa, in 2019.)

At that point, Suga realized he needed to give himself more options ahead of the presidential race, and rumors started circulating about a Cabinet reshuffle. In theory, this would have allowed Suga to rebrand his administration ahead of the Lower House election. It also would have enabled him to punish challengers by ousting them and their faction mates from Cabinet postings, while rewarding others for their support. Historically, Cabinet reshuffles have the added benefit of offering up to a 10-point boost in public opinion — something Suga needed desperately.

But that is how things work when things are normal, not under duress.

Under the current situation, the prospect of a Cabinet reshuffle made Suga look even more desperate, and his party’s confidence waned even further.

That was when Suga rolled out the wildest of his ideas: he floated the notion of dissolving the Lower House early. In essence, he was threatening to force his entire party to have to campaign early and at his whim unless they supported him. Some party members began referring to this as “murder-suicide,” and the prevailing sentiment was that it was all too much.

On Sept. 2, the same day that Suga had scheduled to announce his candidacy to Secretary-General Nikai, several LDP factions convened to discuss the party’s leadership. By the next morning, it seemed that party executives had their minds made up on the course of action.

While the LDP will never disclose what was discussed on the morning of Sept. 3, there is little doubt that party heavyweights sat Suga down and said something to this effect: “Circumstances have changed. We can’t support you in this next presidential election, and we think it would be best for the party and for the country if you stepped aside.”

Realizing that his only remaining options were to leave with some dignity intact or to continue in a fight he was sure to lose embarrassingly, Suga made a choice. He walked out of that meeting speechless, hours later offering a simple justification that it was his decision — that he could not properly execute his functions as prime minister while trying to run for reelection as party president.

Suga is being truthful in saying that it was ultimately his decision not to run. Reflecting upon the events of the past two weeks, however, the fiction in his words is that it was ever really his choice to make alone.

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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