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Sixth in a series of six

There is still another week until the Liberal Democratic Party race formally begins, but there has already been a fair share of twists and turns. Loyalties have shifted and fortunes have changed at dizzying pace, and the two weeks of campaigning are unlikely to prove any less eventful.

It started with the swift and unexpected announcement of the end of the Yoshihide Suga administration and continued with Shinzo Abe’s surprise endorsement of former Minister of Internal Affairs Sanae Takaichi. At first, it looked to be a head-to-head battle between an incumbent prime minister and a single challenger in former foreign minister Fumio Kishida. Now, it seems that it will become a three-way melee between Takaichi, Kishida and administrative reform minister and vaccine czar Taro Kono.

Naturally, there are many questions and few answers, but here are some issues that will receive attention in the media.

How the election plays out

Although it feels like it has been ongoing for weeks, the LDP party presidential race only formally begins on Sept. 17. On that day, candidates must deliver their 20 nominations to the party’s election council. It is important to remember that no candidacy is confirmed until then, so prime minister-hopefuls still have one more week to broker deals and make their decisions.

Once the nominations are in, the candidates are free to campaign openly. With most of the behind-the-scenes deal making done among LDP parliamentary members over the past couple of weeks, candidates will shift their efforts to the local party chapters that own a share of first-round voting equal to sitting members of parliament. Most candidates try to conduct a whirlwind tour across the country, stopping at as many prefectural and municipal LDP chapters as possible, no matter how big or small.

It is during those tours that some of the candidates’ near-term policy positions will become clear, but they may also decide to publish manifestos if they have not already. Kisihida put out a book titled “Kishida Vision: From Division to Cooperation,” during last year’s party presidential race. Kono published “Moving Japan Forward” — a book about his life and political thinking — two weeks ago. Takaichi is now looking to get her own book into print as soon as possible.

On Sept. 29, the LDP will go to the polls, with local chapters and parliamentary members issuing their votes and having them counted at the same time. The party does it this way to ensure that the outcomes from the local votes do not have last-minute influence on voting decisions from the LDP members in Tokyo.

The election may go to a second round if a candidate cannot win a majority of votes in the first. In the past, it was actually routine for party presidential elections to go two rounds. The first round was often referred to as the “beauty contest,” in which each LDP faction would support its own candidate, and everyone would vote down factional lines with no majority winner. The real voting always happened in the second round.

Things have changed now, with the party’s two previous presidential elections being decided in the first round, but that does not mean a second-round runoff is unlikely. It happened in 2012 when Abe first took power, and if Takaichi, Kono and Kishida all run, we may well see this race go to a second round.

Given this, there are two layers of negotiations taking place right now: deal-making for support in the first-round when everyone is in the mix; and separate deals for support depending on the possible head-to-head matchups that could happen in the second round when only sitting members of parliament and a total of 47 votes from local chapters are counted.

Will polling matter?

In principle, public opinion is political capital inside the LDP. That is because higher approval ratings mean greater stability for the administration and better job security for the individual politician. Given this, many junior LDP politicians who have to run in the upcoming Lower House election are fixating on the candidates’ public popularity.

Public opinion also has the potential to influence the voting behaviors of local LDP chapters. Although the party has excluded local chapter votes for various exigencies (e.g. in 2007, 2008 and 2020), the current rules for a full election mandate an equal number of local LDP votes as those of sitting members of parliament. In this upcoming election, many of those chapters may lean toward having a popular leader at the top to elevate the party’s public approval enough to make a difference at the prefectural and municipal levels.

Theoretically, this would make Taro Kono a shoo-in for party president, considering he is leading all the polls right now by a decent margin. However, if the LDP always went with whoever was leading the polls, we would have seen Shigeru Ishiba win in 2012, rather than Shinzo Abe.

The reality is that public opinion is just one of many sources of power for these hopefuls, and rarely the most important one when dealing with intraparty dynamics. Observers must temper expectations based solely upon polling data.

That does not mean the polling is without its impacts — but it ties into the next issue that is in debate at the moment.

How important are a candidate’s policy ideas?

The LDP party presidential election has always been a numbers game. For a candidate to win, they have to secure the votes among fellow politicians who are not necessarily interested in advancing an ideology.

For the average LDP politician (and perhaps politicians the world over), the hierarchy of needs is simple. It starts first with political survival; after all, if one cannot hold office, what is the point of anything else from his or her perspective?

Once political survival is assured, politicians will look for benefits, not just for themselves, but for their political allies and constituents. These can include postings in the Cabinet or party, or pork barrel projects for home districts, among other things.

After that is when ideas really begin to matter. With survival and benefits in place, LDP politicians may decide to rally behind candidates based on the ideologies and policies they espouse. Conversely, ideas can matter if they happen to threaten one’s benefits or chance of survival, so it is often a case where a supporter is not necessarily looking to endorse a candidate who aligns with their own ideas, but one whose ideas do not infringe upon their interests.

Thus, in the context of the upcoming party presidential race, anti-reform LDP members may support Kishida because he plays by the party rules and will not threaten the apparatus that supplies their benefits. Junior LDP members who worry about their Lower House election chances may prefer Kono because his popularity makes the LDP more attractive in the upcoming general election. Would-be supporters of Takaichi may endorse her not because of her strongly conservative views, but because she might be more indebted to them if she becomes prime minister. The list goes on, but the behavior of LDP politicians tends to follow this pattern.

Will voting occur down factional lines?

Several media outlets have begun reporting on fractures inside LDP factions — institutionalized groups of parliamentary members that serve various roles within the party apparatus. One of the traditional functions of factions has been to serve as voting blocs in party presidential elections, meaning all members of the faction vote for the same candidate. By and large, that is how it happened in 2018 and 2020 elections, but reports suggest that this may not be the case for the upcoming vote.

One of the challenges in this election is that everything is moving quickly, and each LDP politician is having to ensure his or her needs are being met at a far faster pace than individual faction heads can manage.

Without a clear frontrunner and backroom deals still looming, junior LDP members — those with fewer than five election victories — are getting antsy. Many are worried about their prospects for the Lower House election, so they want to vote for the candidate that can give the party the biggest boost in the polls; that is, Kono. Others are tired of having to rely on the whims of a handful of party elites to manage their individual political destinies.

The dissatisfaction is real, but it is important to remember that there is always tension within the party; what has contributed to the LDP’s longevity is that it has its own internal checks and balances to manage that tension. The faction heads are not powerless in the face of their members’ dissatisfaction, since they still are the ones responsible for negotiating cabinet postings and other benefits for those junior politicians.

There is sure to be more grumbling as the race drags on, but there are only two indicators that will tell us how significant this reported fracturing may be: first, if faction heads come out and say that their members will be voting independently; and second, how the voting breaks down on election day itself.

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 games of thrones” series.

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