PYEONGTAEK, SOUTH KOREA – On the surface, the Japanese political landscape has seemed stable the past few months even through an Upper House election and Cabinet reshuffle, but that stability has masked the jockeying taking place behind the scenes.
Behind the veil of party unity, players within the Liberal Democratic Party have sought to position themselves for the top spot in the line of succession, and that line is changing. Big-name LDP politicians who were front-runners for post-Abe leadership a few years ago have fallen behind the pack, while others have positioned themselves well.
To assess prospects for a prime ministerial candidate, one must look at two key factors: intraparty support and public support. The former is more important, because to become prime minister in an LDP-led government, a politician must become the party president. To become the party president, one must have the numerical support from party members, and that is influenced by factional affiliation and individual relationships with key party leaders.
The second factor is public support. While the Japanese public has no direct say in who becomes prime minister, they influence decision-making within the LDP based on public opinion. Public opinion is political capital in Japan, and the less that is available, the more worried the LDP gets that it could lose seats and control of the government.
When the party gets worried, it starts looking to put someone forward who can change the image in the public eye to stabilize the political situation; i.e., someone who contrasts the person currently in power. Additionally, selecting a popular prime minister means the party has more leeway to push through policy agenda items, including contentious bills. Thus, individuals who already have high public support have a better chance of securing party backing.
So, who is best postured in the line of succession? Based on the two key sources of power for a prime ministerial candidate, it is still Taro Kono, but he is treading water at the moment. While he was able to hang onto a Cabinet posting in this latest reshuffle despite Abe’s preference to have him out, the defense minister billet is not a kingmaker position.
Fortunately for Kono, he belongs to the second-largest LDP faction. That faction operates under Taro Aso, but Aso inherited it from Kono’s father, Yohei Kono. It stands to reason that the faction will make a strong push for Taro Kono to ascend to national leadership once Abe’s run is through, and this push will be bolstered by the fact that Kono enjoys a good reputation among the public. He may, however, find himself up against Abe’s dark horse successor.
New Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi has hardly caught anyone’s attention as a viable option for the next prime minister, and in their defense, Motegi is still a work in progress. If power were to change hands overnight, he would not stand a chance, but if Abe lasts for another year or two, Motegi will be best-positioned to succeed him.
Motegi is a member of Wataru Takeshita’s faction, the third-largest group in the LDP. Those kind of factional numbers are desirable for any prime minister hopeful, but Motegi has a problem: He is not Takeshita’s first choice for prime minister. The split between Motegi and Takeshita became most evident in the LDP’s last presidential election, with Motegi’s cohort supporting Abe and Takeshita’s group supporting Shigeru Ishiba. Motegi has a chance to wrest control of the faction away from Takeshita though. The rift is already there, and the aging Takeshita has been battling throat cancer. If Motegi gets enough momentum and intraparty backing, he could swing the faction’s full support toward him.
If Motegi can get those factional numbers, gaining additional intraparty backing will not be challenging, since he is positioned to be Abe’s chosen successor. Motegi and Abe are close. How close? Besides the anecdotal evidence of the two being golf buddies, Abe has kept Motegi in a position of leadership in every reshuffle since 2012 — a distinction matched only by Yoshihide Suga, Aso and Fumio Kishida. Other ideological allies of Abe are not ready for the prime minister’s post, but Motegi has been quietly building his portfolio and could easily be Abe’s hand-picked successor.
What Motegi does not yet have is the name recognition and public support, though he now has the chance to rectify that as foreign minister. Representing Japan on the world stage not only helps Motegi build his reputation abroad, it gives him a chance to shine on a global stage and become a regular on domestic news broadcasts. If Motegi can succeed in his current posting, he will be well-groomed for the Prime Minister’s Office.
But what about the most talked about option for prime minister? For years, the popular Shinjiro Koizumi has been discussed as the foregone conclusion for the nation’s highest office, in part because he routinely polls in the top three alongside Abe and Ishiba for whom the public would like to see in the Prime Minister’s Office. While few observers doubt that Koizumi is future prime minister material, he is still years away from ascending to the nation’s highest office. He needs to prove himself in his first ministerial posting, which will likely be contentious given that his stance on nuclear power contrasts with the administration’s well-established policies.
Further, while popular support is not an issue for the young politician, he lacks the intraparty support necessary to rise to the top of the LDP, and, more importantly to Koizumi, to be effective in the position. Per his maverick persona, Koizumi has eschewed LDP factional politics and sought to grow a support base among younger Diet members of the LDP. While this may eventually bear fruit, it does not help him now, as LDP heavyweights will employ their factional support in deciding the next prime minister.
There are, of course, others who will be on any observer’s short list to succeed Abe. One includes Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga. The man nicknamed “Uncle Reiwa” for his presentation of the new era name has a lot going for him, but he still cannot match the intraparty or popular support of the other hopefuls. Lacking factional support, Suga would need Abe to endorse him while lobbying other factions. Suga also lacks the broad popular appeal that could attract LDP interest.
Then there is Ishiba, who has long been a strong prime ministerial candidate in the eyes of many voters. Despite his strengths as a politician, his weaknesses were evidenced in last September’s LDP leadership election as he simply did not have the numerical support to win out. His numbers will only continue to dwindle as Abe keeps edging Ishiba supporters out of positions of importance within the administration.
Kishida is also worth mentioning. Although Abe has placed him in positions of “leadership” in every reshuffle, he served as foreign minister when Abe himself set the record for most countries visited by a Japanese prime minister and as chief of the LDP’s Policy Research Council when Abe has routinely eschewed standard LDP policymaking practices. Despite being undermined in those positions, Kishida has been risk-averse in challenging Abe. The result has been a gradual recession from frontrunner, but Kishida’s supporters may still rally around him once again when the time comes. It will likely be too little too late.
Finally, there remains the remote possibility that Abe seeks to renew his prime ministership. His term as party president is set to end in September 2021, and while the LDP had already changed its rules once to allow for Abe to serve this long, there is a chance that supporters will seek to extend Abe’s tenure once again. That seems unlikely given Abe’s lack of remaining agenda items and the fact that there are others in the party who feel it is their turn at the helm.
In sum, the two to watch moving forward are Kono and Motegi. Kishida will remain a potential successor, but he will have to make some dramatic moves soon to re-establish himself as the frontrunner. Suga and Koizumi both have about the same chance of actually taking over after Abe, which is slim given their absence of support that comes from factional ties. Ishiba will probably try again for the office, but it will be hard for him to gain as much momentum as he had in the past when he still lost out to Abe. Of course, all of this is predicated on when Abe decides to end his historic run, which he may seek to extend once again.
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 and is a Ph.D. candidate at the International University of Japan.