The Diet went into recess last week, but for Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito coalition, the real action is just beginning. For them, there is much politicking to do and little time to do it.
Naturally, most Japan observers will be focused on the Olympic Games, but the summer will be full of political competition both ahead of and during three notable elections set for the coming months.
First, there is the Tokyo municipal election scheduled for early July. Then the LDP’s presidential election is presumably set to take place in mid-September. Finally, the House of Representatives election must happen sometime before the end of October. These elections will put the political leadership and literally hundreds of ruling coalition jobs on the line.
If Japanese politics was simple, the next few months would be straightforward: We would see the Tokyo municipal elections in a few weeks and then the politicking would pause to focus on the Olympics and Paralympics. Next, LDP members would pick the party president they believe has the best shot at leading them through a general election and then the Japanese public would go to the polls.
But Japan is not somehow immune to the complexities of politics, even under the premise of a one-party system. The dominant party, the LDP, has a junior coalition partner, Komeito, that has significant influence in devising and implementing election strategies. The LDP also happens to be composed of several factions, the leaders of which all think they know how best to run the party and the country.
What does that mean for the summer then? In short, it means that there will be plenty of intraparty and intracoalition deliberation, lots of political jockeying and probably some discord that spills out into the media space.
For outside observers, the first step is to examine the outcomes of the Tokyo municipal election. Originally slated for last summer, it was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now scheduled for July 4, this election will serve as a bellwether — but not for the traditional reasons one might expect.
A strong showing by the opposition parties might suggest that the LDP and Komeito should be worried about the upcoming Lower House election. However, that was the same logic that compelled observers to believe that Gov. Yuriko Koike’s Kibo no To (Party of Hope) stood a chance in the October 2017 general election; after all, her regional, Tokyo-centered Tomin First no Kai party netted 49 seats in the last city election, knocking the LDP down from 57 seats to a record-low 23. Meanwhile, the Party of Hope faded from the national scene into obscurity as quickly as it formed.
One must remember that Japan’s big cities are not reflective of national level politics, so even if the LDP and Komeito suffer a relatively poor outcome in a few weeks, it will not portend some sweeping movement across the country.
Instead, the most important indicator in the Tokyo elections will be voter turnout. If the turnout is low (which is likely given the COVID pandemic and general public apathy towards Japanese politics right now), the LDP and Komeito will rejoice. Lower turnout benefits the parties that have the biggest vote-generating apparatuses, and no other party in Japan can match the LDP and Komeito in that regard.
The ruling coalition will watch these elections and take note. Behind the scenes, there will be debates over the implications and opportunists within the parties will exploit any outcome, especially a poor showing by candidates associated with the ruling coalition. Challengers within the party will blame the prime minister for any failures — even at the municipal level — in an attempt to elevate themselves or their allies or to influence the timing of the next two elections.
The timing of when the party elects its president and when the country goes to the polls for the Lower House vote is important, so expect the LDP to take steps to engineer the election calendar. There are already proposals that the party extend Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s term as LDP president by a few weeks.
The goal of this move would be to enable the LDP to run the national election before the party presidential election, basically enabling them to course correct after the Lower House vote. It would also allow the LDP to avoid highly publicized in-fighting that would have to occur between prospective party presidents like Yoshide Suga, Fumio Kishida, Taro Kono and others.
At the moment, no formal extension of Suga’s term has happened. Certainly, there are some who would rather keep the party presidential race where it is rather than to move it. For example, Suga’s allies might want the party presidential election to happen before the national election so they can push for Suga to run unchallenged in the name of party unity.
Obviously, there are pros and cons associated with each option, but right now the LDP is weighing them all. It means that even though we are projecting a mid-September party presidential race, they may switch things up to accommodate the all-important House of Representatives election.
The last thing to watch this summer is the competition for spots in the LDP’s leadership pecking order. Rightly, many are simply curious as to whether Suga will be able to survive the next few months in office, but here is an equally important question: If not Suga, then who?
If that question seems difficult to answer, do not be discouraged, since the party itself is still figuring this one out. Should they go all in on Suga? Do they resurrect Shinzo Abe as prime minister? Do they turn to the perennial “bridesmaid but never the bride” Fumio Kishida? Will they swallow their pride and go with fan-favorite Shigeru Ishiba? Do they go for a dark horse in the form of Toshimitsu Motegi or Katsunobu Kato?
The truth is that circumstances are far less predictable right now than in previous LDP elections. There is no precedent for an LDP party president who has a one year term during a global pandemic and whose end follows Japan’s hosting of the Olympics and Paralympics and just so happens to coincide with the expiration of the Lower House term.
Undeniably, this is uncharted territory, which means that relying on our understanding of past examples may not point us in the right direction here. Instead, it is important to examine the evidence before us and to look at the range of options available to LDP members. That evidence will reveal itself this summer in leaks to the press, overt actions by ruling coalition heavyweights and good reporting on the inner machinations of the LDP and Komeito.
We have already started to see some evidence of the internal power dynamics coming to light, such as the various caucuses being formed in the LDP. Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and close Abe-ally Akira Amari have all formed new groups focused on different subjects.
The subject matter itself is not as important as the active intraparty leadership roles each are vying to demonstrate. This evidence tells us that we need to observe what the leaders of these caucuses are up to in the coming weeks and months.
As for the range of options, those will expand or narrow depending on three things not already mentioned in this piece: Suga’s public opinion ratings; the state of affairs vis-a-vis the Olympics; and the rate of COVID vaccinations in Japan. Naturally, those things are not mutually exclusive, but they do serve as individual indicators that politicians will use in determining their next moves.
In short, the worse things are based on those indicators, the more emboldened Suga’s intraparty and intracoalition rivals will be and the more complex the political environment becomes. Conversely, the better things are related to those indicators, the more assured Suga will be atop the government.
Right now, we cannot know what will happen. Sure, the safe bet is to say that the LDP and Komeito will retain at least a stable majority in the Lower House and Suga will continue to be prime minister. But a safe bet is still a gamble. In this case, the competitors are already well into the game — one which we will have to watch play out in the coming months.
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.
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