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When Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said he would not run in the Liberal Democratic Party leadership race on Sept. 3, some in the party — those worried about fighting the upcoming general election under an unpopular leader — were relieved at the news.

But one political group was very sad to see him go — Nippon Ishin no Kai and its affiliate Osaka Ishin no Kai.

The parties have long enjoyed a warm relationship with Suga, especially Nippon Ishin co-leader and Osaka Mayor Ichiro Matsui. Following the news that Suga was resigning, Matsui praised his good friend, whom he met regularly and often spoke to by phone.

“I’ve felt really sorry for Suga, since he picked someone’s chestnuts out of the fire by becoming prime minister. I think he’ll be judged well by future generations,” Matsui said.

Suga and Matsui have been close ever since the LDP returned to power in 2012 with Shinzo Abe at the helm and Suga as chief Cabinet secretary. Their relationship gave Matsui and his fledgling Nippon Ishin an inside track to the Prime Minister’s Office.

But it also created resentment on the part of local Osaka LDP members, who didn’t like Abe’s chummy relationship with a party they opposed in the prefectural and municipal assemblies.

Meanwhile, Osaka Ishin’s local politicians worried that their leaders’ relationship with Suga and Abe could backfire at election time in the city and the prefecture, when they had to convince voters that the LDP really was the opposition.

Nippon Ishin’s Diet members had been less concerned. Before the prime minister’s announcement, they had suggested that, after a Lower House election later this autumn, they might be more flexible — and willing — to talk about joining the ruling coalition under a Suga-led LDP.

Matsui was not happy with that idea, fearing it would damage Osaka Ishin’s credibility in Osaka. But the offer illustrated the degree of friendliness and cooperation between Nippon Ishin, Matsui and Suga.

Nippon Ishin no Kai co-leader and Osaka Mayor Ichiro Matsui | KYODO
Nippon Ishin no Kai co-leader and Osaka Mayor Ichiro Matsui | KYODO

With Suga now out the door, Matsui and Nippon Ishin are left wondering how friendly his successor will be when they call. Will the switchboard operator put them through quickly? Or will they spend a long time on hold before being told by a low-level functionary to please call back later or leave a message?

Keeping the line open to the heart of the central government is now especially important for Nippon Ishin and Matsui, as the Dubai World Expo begins on Oct. 1. Delayed one year by the coronavirus pandemic, it ends in March, just three years before the Osaka Kansai World Expo is set to open in 2025.

Matsui and other Osaka and Kansai leaders will travel to Dubai several times to promote their expo, and Dec. 11 is Japan Day. Whoever is prime minister then is expected to be there, along with other Cabinet ministers.

Suga has been a particularly enthusiastic backer of the 2025 Expo, and Nippon Ishin was counting on him to be in Dubai. Now they worry his replacement may lack the same enthusiasm for the event, especially in pushing expo-related budget requests over the next few years at the Diet.

Suga’s impending exit, and the possible impact on Matsui and Nippon Ishin’s smooth relationship with the Prime Minister’s Office, has compounded the party’s existing identity crisis stemming from its failure to merge Osaka’s wards. With reduced political leverage and their founding goal seemingly out of sight, Nippon Ishin will be forced as never before to prove — at the Diet and to voters — that they are something other than a de facto local branch of the Abe-Suga wing of the LDP.

Given that Nippon Ishin’s voting record in the Diet shows its members tend to be in agreement with the LDP on most issues, and now that senior figures have expressed their desire to join with the LDP, that could prove to be a tough sell at election time.

View from Osaka is a monthly column that examines the latest news from a Kansai perspective.

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