PYEONGTAEK, SOUTH KOREA – The Liberal Democratic Party leadership race is now set, and the three runners are at their marks. Granted, with five of seven factions backing him and an election engineered to handicap one of the candidates, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga is already well ahead of the pack.
With Suga’s assured victory, we now have a clearer outlook of Japan’s political landscape for the next twelve months. However, while many are hoping this party election will put an end to Japan’s leadership debate, the LDP’s actions these past few weeks reveal that victory in this month’s race only represents the first hurdle, not the finish line.
There are a number of important factors that will immediately influence Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s successor. The fact that this party presidential term comes with a one-year expiry means that all prime minister-hopefuls will once again be looking to take on the country’s top job come September 2021.
Suga may have the factional backing now, but no such guarantee exists for next year.
There is also the issue of the Lower House election. The term for the House of Representatives is set to end in December 2021, meaning that the new prime minister will either have to call a snap election sometime during his first term, or that it will have to come after the next LDP presidential election in September 2021.
The party will be watching closely to see if the winner of this LDP leadership race (i.e. Suga), will be able to cultivate the kind of support necessary to ensure the LDP-Komeito coalition can at least maintain a stable majority in the Lower House.
Then there are all the challenges looming large — namely COVID-19, an economic recession, and the Tokyo Olympics — meaning the prime minister will have to do many things to have any hope of making himself irreplaceable come next September.
He will have to run the government effectively, engineer enough of a recovery to maintain public confidence in the administration, and keep the LDP wolves at bay by managing intraparty politics. Meanwhile, any politicians hoping to succeed in September 2021 will have to remain posturing.
Given all of this, there are four things to watch in this leadership race and the immediate aftermath to get a better idea of Japan’s near-term political landscape.
The first is the vote count in this leadership race.
Although Suga is a shoo-in, the amount of votes that former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba and former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida can garner will indicate their respective shelf lives as viable prime ministerial candidates.
If all the members of factions vote down factional lines, then the baseline tallies for each of the candidates would be 268 votes for Suga, 47 for Kishida, and 19 for Ishiba.
The next step is looking at how many votes on top of those numbers each of the candidates receive out of the 535 total. This is important because the critical number is not the total votes each candidate gets, but the number of votes above what we expect from factional tallies.
For example, let’s assume Suga receives 418 votes, Ishiba 57 votes, and Kishida, 60. For the uninitiated, that would seem that Ishiba and Kishida were largely on par with each other. In reality, 50-60 votes for Ishiba means that he received upwards of 25 percent of the prefectural votes despite having the deck stacked against him. This would indicate that he still commands enough support from prefectural voters to make him a threat come next September. Meanwhile, if Kishida only walks away with 50-60 votes, it means he is barely getting more than his own faction and will have to make major moves if he has any hope of becoming prime minister.
Cabinet and LDP leadership appointments
The second thing to watch is the composition of the Cabinet and LDP leadership billets.
Seeing who makes it into these postings will reveal much about the behind-the-scenes machinations within the LDP. Traditionally, the prime minister apportions Cabinet appointments based on factional end-strengths.
In other words, if a faction has 25 percent of the LDP’s sitting Diet members, it receives about 25 percent of the postings. Of course, rivals tend to get a lower percentage and allies tend to get more, so it will be fairly easy to discern who Suga considers friends and enemies inside the LDP based on Cabinet postings alone.
The Cabinet and LDP leadership appointments are also important because they will influence the prospects of future would-be government leaders. We should observe where prime minister-hopefuls like Taro Kono and Toshimitsu Motegi fall in the pecking order. The most important position to watch is the one Suga currently inhabits: the Chief Cabinet Secretary. This is the prime minister’s de facto number two, and the role includes the herculean responsibilities of both managing the Cabinet and serving as the administration’s spokesperson. Whomever receives that position will be postured well to move up the line-of-succession.
In Japan, public approval is political capital, and the first public opinion poll following the formation of the new Cabinet will be telling. It will inform the prime minister just how much wiggle room he has in executing a policy agenda. As I have described before, a 20 to 30 percent public approval rating is the danger zone, 30 to 40 percent is the caution zone, 40 to 50 percent is the comfort zone, and above 50 percent is the command zone. Traditionally, prime ministers tend to start with relatively high public approval ratings (Abe commanded more than 60 percent public approval in 2012 when he started his tenure), but the manner in which the LDP conducts this transition of power will likely temper public support for Abe’s successor.
Whether good, bad, or indifferent, polling will inform the LDP on what the public thought of the intraparty politics that rendered the outcome it did. The LDP still has to engineer a snap election sometime between now and the end of 2021, so it will be cognizant of whether its internal moves will compel voters to support the opposition in the next Lower House election.
Although it seems paradoxical, both low and high public opinion polls could influence a snap election before year’s end. The administration’s justification for the election would be to validate the LDP’s choice for prime minister. If poll numbers are exceptionally low owing to the way the LDP handled the transition, the snap election would be cast as granting voters the decision on whether to deliver a mandate to the new prime minister. If the poll numbers are high, the LDP may seek to ride that wave while the opposition is still coalescing.
It is important to note here that while one must always keep an eye on the potential for a snap election, one must also remember that the LDP’s junior coalition partner has a say. No matter what the public polling may be, the Komeito is unenthusiastic of executing a snap election amidst a pandemic, so the LDP will have an additional hurdle in convincing them that the timing is right.
Emergence of policy platforms
The last thing to observe is policy platform building. Many may be wondering why this is not the first thing to watch. In part, it is because this race is a foregone conclusion, but it is also because the time is so short between Abe’s resignation announcement and the actual leadership election that no candidate can adequately build and communicate a fully-formed, implementable platform. Certainly, we have already seen minimanifestos from Suga, Kishida, and Ishiba, but their audience is targeted and time limited. So, even though the candidates are issuing campaign pledges, understand that many of these are trial balloons for a platform that will mature over the course of the next year until the next party leadership poll. It will be important to observe the evolution of the respective platforms.
At the same time, the major candidates who sat this race out will be formulating their long-term policy positions. While they will respect the party boundaries, politicians like Kono and Motegi may make notable remarks during Diet sessions, private conferences, and public speeches that offer windows into their policy preferences. The important questions to ask are how far are they straying from the party line; in other words, will they be vying for the continuity pledge or the reform vote?
There will be a lot of reporting on the leadership election, and many pages of commentary and analysis to sift through. Keeping these four things in mind will help make sense of it all as we will soon be seeing every one of the LDP’s prime minister-hopefuls settle in for the marathon that they have begun.
Dr. 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.