Pyeongtaek, South Korea – Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's resignation announcement on Friday reverberated throughout the world.
After all, he had shepherded a stable Japanese government for the past eight years only to make a surprise announcement that he would be stepping down due to a resurgence of his ulcerative colitis.
Now, questions abound.
Who will be the next prime minister? When will the transition in power occur? Does this spell instability for the world's third largest economic power?
As these questions swirl in the media, there will be a lot of speculation in the coming days. To gain a better understanding of all that is going on, it is necessary to sift through the conjecture, take predictions with a grain of salt and look at the core points underwriting the issue first.
There are five that I will offer here:
Picking the prime minister
First, it is important to understand how the prime minister is selected in Japan. It is not done through popular vote; rather, lawmakers select who will lead the country. This means that the majority party gets to choose and, as a matter of practice, the Liberal Democratic Party always selects its party president to be the prime minister.
The party president is elected in a vote that typically includes both sitting members of the Diet, Japan’s legislature, and a sampling of representatives from the LDP’s local chapters. In certain cases, such as a midterm presidential election or a run-off, only sitting Diet members vote.
Transition not a shock
With that in mind, it is important to recognize the second point: Abe's exit is early, but leadership transition was on the books to happen at some point within the next year. Although the announcement caught many by surprise, it is not a shock to the Japanese political system. Rather, it is an acceleration of things already in motion.
Liberal Democratic Party executives were already looking at post-Abe succession, especially if Abe's approval ratings continued to nose-dive owing to scandals and a tepid response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether or not Abe left early, the next party presidential election was scheduled to take place in September 2021 when Abe’s final term as president came to an end.
Abe’s early exit causes more rapid decision-making among party leadership and presents new issues, but the same players that were primed to succeed Abe in 2021 are still the candidates to do so now.
As a reminder, those individuals are former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, former LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba, Defense Minister Taro Kono, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihida Suga, and Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi. Of course, the question will be, who has the best chance of succeeding Abe?
Options for the LDP
This leads to the third core point, which is that there are many different options for the LDP right now. The party could push Abe to step down so they can install an acting prime minister until the party presidential election scheduled to occur in September 2021. They could initiate a mid-term party presidential election composed only of parliamentary member votes, or they could engineer a full party presidential election that includes local LDP chapters. Each option privileges a different successor.
For example, Suga is the logical option to serve as an acting prime minister but has little hope of winning a party presidential election. Ishiba has a shot at winning a full-fledged party presidential election that includes local LDP chapters, but is far less likely to win if the vote only includes Diet members.
How Abe’s influence remains
The fourth point is that in his resignation announcement, Abe said that he does not intend to influence the decision on his successor. However, his decision to stay on as prime minister until the party decides upon a new leader does influence potential outcomes.
It means that the party will not have to install an acting prime minister. It also means that Abe could call an extraordinary session of the Diet and they could engineer a party presidential election to coincide with a snap election — something an acting prime minister cannot do.
Factoring in an election
This leads to the fifth and final point: there is still a Lower House election the LDP has to consider. The Lower House term is set to end in December 2021, although the party always seeks to call a snap election for the most opportune moments.
Right now, opposition parties are merging, the LDP’s symbol of stability is resigning due to health and COVID concerns are not going away anytime soon. Throw in the postponed Tokyo Olympics and the party will be seeking options that enable it to maintain at least a stable majority in the Lower House election.
As a result, whatever the party decides will be shaped by the Lower House election, which is a factor that makes this situation much more fluid and dynamic. General elections are always tricky objects for political parties, and trying to orchestrate a party presidential election at the same time makes it even more difficult.
As for who to watch right now to track developments, be cautious. There will be plenty of politicians seeking to capitalize on the power vacuum, to cause misdirection for opposition parties, and to elevate their own status in the public eye.
They will become sources of speculation in the coming days. Instead, LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai is the primary individual to watch, as it is his responsibility for coordinating decisions among party executives. If he speaks, it will be important to listen.
These are interesting days for Japanese and, indeed, world politics. Understandably, Abe’s announcement and the actions that follow will be the source of much reporting and commentary. Through all the speculation that is bound to follow, keeping the aforementioned points in mind will help you sift through it all to track the developments that are actually meaningful.
Other than that, all one can do is sit back, watch and wait while the LDP decides its next move.
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.
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