Pyeongtaek, South Korea – Heading into 2020, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seemed poised for a strong, stable year atop Japan’s government. Many observers were debating whether the Liberal Democratic Party would change its rules to grant him a fourth term as party president, which on paper could have extended his run until 2024.
Nobody is debating that now. Instead, speculation is swirling that Abe is a lame duck and a snap election may be his only option to salvage what’s left of his prime ministership. Amid this speculation, there will be two questions in many minds: one, how long does Abe have left; and two, who might be poised to succeed him?
There is some merit to the arguments that Abe is on his way out. His approval ratings are hovering between 30 and 40 percent with disapproval ratings at nearly 60 percent depending on the polling source — the opposite from just six months ago. The primary driver for the drop has been the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, now symbolized by the oft-mocked “Abenomask” policy. Compounding the downturn were two prominent scandals: the high prosecutor scandal and the arrests of Katsuyuki and Anri Kawai over vote-buying.
Further validating speculation is the fact that Abe’s rivals in the LDP are already making moves behind-the-scenes. Over the past few weeks, LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai has held private meetings with individual factions to discuss post-Abe leadership — most notably with Shigeru Ishiba, Taro Aso and representatives from Hiroyuki Hosoda’s faction. The pieces are moving, though no one is yet revealing where and how.
Despite all this, Abe has a strong chance to hang on for the next year. While a fourth term as LDP president seems out of the question, Abe can breathe new life into his administration with a Cabinet reshuffle in a few months. If that fails, he always has the snap election option. Also, while there are some who would gladly succeed Abe, most would prefer to let his administration handle the challenges surrounding COVID-19 and to manage the Tokyo Olympic Games, which is looking increasingly complex to pull off.
But assuming that Abe cannot last until the next party presidential election in September 2021, who is best postured to take over? Given the state of affairs, the LDP knows it has a long road ahead, so it will seek a prime minister that can do a few things well.
First, LDP leaders will want somebody who knows how to run the bureaucracy. The economic challenges Japan faces require a leader who can effectively manage the legislation and implementation of measures aimed at recovering the economy.
Second, the LDP wants someone who can unify the party. Without viable opposition at the national level right now, the party is not yet vulnerable enough to have to reinvent its internal processes. As such, it will look for someone who can manage the long-standing intraparty system.
Third, although least important for LDP leaders, they will prefer a prime minister that can generate public support. While there are not any major elections for the next year, the party will need a charismatic leader to handle the next Lower House election (no later than the fall of 2021), Upper House election (summer 2022) and unified municipal/prefectural elections (April 2023).
Beyond that, things will depend on the timing and manner in which Abe leaves office. Under the current circumstances, there are five politicians to watch.
First is Shigeru Ishiba, the most recent challenger to Abe’s prime ministership. Ishiba has long been among the public’s preference in polling as the best option for prime minister, and his strong relationship with regional LDP chapters will hold him in good stead as the entire country seeks to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. Ishiba also enjoys good relations with the bureaucracy.
However, Ishiba is not a unifier within the party, and his rivalry with Abe is well-documented since their falling out in 2015. Ishiba must now make moves to shore up support, which is why he is already talking to Toshihiro Nikai. Nikai commands the LDP’s fifth-largest faction, and Ishiba already has the support of Wataru Takeshita, the leader of the party’s third-largest faction. If Abe falls from power in the near-term, and if Ishiba can pool those numbers on his side, he will have a legitimate shot at succession.
The next politician to observe is Fumio Kishida. Abe’s former foreign minister has many of the qualities the LDP is looking for in the next prime minister: He gets along well enough with the bureaucracy, avoids controversy and is a faction head. After Abe and Ishiba’s falling out years ago, Abe all but promised Kishida the next spot in the line-of-succession, but Kishida has not made the political plays necessary to protect his position. He will need to make some moves now to ensure that other contenders do not edge him out.
Next in consideration is the current foreign minister and personal friend of Abe, Toshimitsu Motegi. If Abe was in a position of power and able to appoint his own successor, Motegi would likely be the choice, and not a bad one, either. Motegi has bounced around the Cabinet and LDP executive billets for the past seven years, knows the inner-workings of multiple ministries and understands the party’s processes. Moreover, he is generally well-liked among bureaucrats, takes advice and performs well both on the domestic and foreign stages.
The problem with Motegi is that he is a minor player in the party and only a niche name for Japanese households. Further, he is a member of Wataru Takeshita’s faction, and Takeshita sided with Ishiba in the last LDP presidential election. Motegi will rely on Abe to elevate his position in the line-of-succession, but that cannot happen if Abe is limping out of office.
Then there is Defense Minister Taro Kono. Before COVID-19, Kono seemed best postured to succeed Abe. He has a strong public presence, has LDP political lineage (the son of former Foreign Minister Yohei Kono) and comes from the second-largest faction, currently headed by Deputy Prime Minister Aso. In many ways the prime ministership was his to lose, and he has slipped further down the line over the past six months.
Some of Kono’s strengths as a potential candidate — his outspoken nature and desire to lead — have also proven to be weaknesses. During his Cabinet tenure, he has strained relationships with bureaucrats and broken from the party on key policy issues; namely, Aegis Ashore. While this is trademark behavior from a longtime maverick, it will not win Kono any credibility as a unifier in times of political discord. It also means that Kono will likely find himself without a Cabinet billet after the next reshuffle, pushing him outside the public eye in a time when he needs opportunities to demonstrate effective leadership.
Finally, there is “Uncle Reiwa” himself, Yoshihide Suga. Suga’s value is as the safe, stable candidate who is capable of managing the bureaucracy effectively. If the Abe government were to implode and someone needed to stay on to pick up the pieces, Suga would be up to the task. However, Suga does not have the intraparty power to manage the politicking that drives so much of the behind-the-scenes decision-making for elections, Cabinet postings and longer-term party policies. Although Suga’s name will likely be tossed around in the media, he has to accumulate factional backing, something he has not yet done.
In sum, if Abe’s approval ratings once again nose dive, Ishiba has the best shot as the “break glass” option for the LDP. If Abe hangs on until next year but limps out of office with mediocre support, Kishida has the fairest shot. Then again, if Abe makes a miracle recovery, Motegi would be his chosen successor.
Abe’s situation is not dire yet, though 2020 has seen a major shakeup of the post-Abe line-of-succession. The sharks are circling, but if precedent holds true, Abe will try to right the ship with a big Cabinet reshuffle and then perhaps a snap election. Once the waters settle, it will be clearer which of the sharks are closest to the boat.
Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He was deputy chief of government relations at Headquarters, U.S. Forces Japan.