While many observers of Japanese politics have been focused on the Lower House election that must be held by late October, there is another important vote that needs to take place in the coming months.
As Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s term as the Liberal Democratic Party president expires at the end of September, party members could be deciding who will be the new head-of-government before the Japanese public ever goes to the polls.
The LDP revealed that it is looking at concluding the party presidential race sometime between Sept. 20 and 29. The exact date is not yet set in stone, but the Party will announce its final decision on Aug. 26.
That means for the next three weeks, party leaders will be formally debating how to proceed with the issue of its party presidency. Will they stick with Suga, or do they want a fresh face leading them through the general election? Do they go ahead with the end of September date for the party presidential vote, or do they postpone it until after the Lower House election is complete?
We may not have answers to those questions now, but neither does the LDP. Sure, LDP Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai may assert that it is highly likely Suga will win re-election as the incumbent, but that is because it is what Nikai himself wants to happen. Nikai may lead the LDP’s third largest faction and hold a prominent position, but he is by no means the single decision authority on the matter. He and others are currently weighing their options against what they know right now.
They know that the party presidential vote is inherently tied to the Lower House election. There is no way around that, because it will either be “Uncle Reiwa” trying to lead the Party as the symbol of stability, or they will have to pick someone who can represent a re-energized LDP with a novel policy platform. In short, they will have to determine whether the country wants a change from the nine-year status quo that has existed under former Prime Minister and LDP President Shinzo Abe and Suga.
The LDP also knows that its standing among public opinion is mediocre but not dangerous right now. Suga is holding firm in the 30th percentile in approval and the 40% range in disapproval ratings, which is altogether not terrible for a Japanese prime minister.
Suga was a compromise candidate among LDP leaders last year, and the fact that he seems to be weathering the Olympics may convince them to hold firm on that compromise for at least a little while longer. Then again, perhaps the LDP heavyweights will just thank him for his service as they hand the reins to someone else.
As of now, no one in the party has come out and outright said that they intend to contest Suga, but none of the seven LDP faction heads have explicitly thrown their support behind Suga either. Nikai may have gently signaled his personal preference, but that still leaves the six other factions, and they comprise about 72% of the votes among sitting Diet members. That also does not include all the LDP chapters who will get a chance to vote this time, and Suga, who was born in Akita Prefecture but represents a district in Yokohama, is not exactly the grassroots hero for the LDP’s rural strongholds. In other words, another term for Suga is not yet a done deal.
The challenge in observing proceedings between now and Aug. 26 is that most deliberations will be happening inside the LDP headquarters and private meeting spaces. Further, the LDP’s main strength with the public is that it represents stability to voters, so the party is usually loath to reveal any discord within its ranks. Nevertheless, that discord is there, especially in the run-up to these elections.
The debate on who will lead the party through the next election is just one of several fights taking place inside the LDP right now. The LDP is arguing over who will get to run in which districts. Party leaders still have to rank order their proportional representation candidates to see who will get first dibs on Diet seats. They need to decide who is going to get campaign support from which high-profile LDP members.
Complicating matters is that all those issues will be linked in intraparty negotiations.
Given the complexity of deliberations, it is helpful to break things down into what potential outcomes there could be and what one should watch that might signal those outcomes.
First, Suga could run in the LDP race uncontested. If he gets enough factional backing early on, it is possible the party will just rally behind him until the Lower House elections, course-correcting after the vote if the ruling coalition loses too many seats.
Second, Suga could run against someone that has no shot of beating him but who is simply challenging the incumbent to make a point. We saw this in 2018 when former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba ran against then-Prime Minister Abe.
Third, Suga could be readying himself to hand the reins over to a chosen successor. There has been some speculation that Suga might be grooming the minister in charge of coronavirus vaccinations, Taro Kono, to be his successor in a peaceful transition of power. That would still require Kono garnering enough factional support, which is a tall order given some of the things he has done in recent years to draw the party’s ire.
Fourth, the powers that be inside the party could decide that it is time to make a change, and Suga runs unsuccessfully against another candidate that has been able to muster the numbers to win. This is still possible if the right candidate decides to run.
Fifth, the party scraps its previous announcement and decides to extend Suga’s term until after the Lower House election is complete. This seems unlikely since the party has already publicized dates, but stranger things have happened than a political party walking back a previous announcement.
Given these potential outcomes, the most important thing to watch is what the LDP heavyweights telegraph in the media. This starts with faction heads, and we have to monitor what people like Hiroyuki Hosoda, Taro Aso and Fumio Kishida will be saying in the coming weeks.
Another important thing to watch is the prospective candidates. The short list of hopefuls has been the same for some time now — Fumio Kishida, Shigeru Ishiba, Toshimitsu Motegi, Katsunobu Kato and Taro Kono — although it is worth noting that another Abe comeback seems near impossible now that the government is looking at reopening investigations into his past scandals.
Of that list so far, Ishiba has alluded to waiting until after the Lower House election to see what the people say through their votes. Meanwhile, Taro Kono announced this week that he plans on publishing a policy manifesto on Aug. 27, just a day after the LDP issues its decision on when to conclude the party presidential race.
There are still many unknowns and much left to observe. The LDP presidential election may have a tentative date, but with five potential outcomes and myriad players and interests in the mix, there is still a lot of ground the party must cover to reach the finish line.
Michael MacArthur Bosack is a 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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