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LDP’s Battle Royale: Road to Power for Japan’s Next Leader

Titli Basu is Associate Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • September 09, 2021

    Political pulse is running high as the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) presidential election approaches in Japan. LDP’s political culture has increasingly remained embedded in competing factional interests in pursuit of power and position. How the potential candidates leverage the party’s factional fault lines to pursue their political ambitions to become the party president, and thereby chart their trajectory to become the next Prime Minister will be contingent on their political intelligence, timing, experience and acumen for deal-making. But in case the emerging trend within the younger LDP lawmakers arguing in favour of “free vote” beyond factional dictates gain momentum, it will further complicate the puzzle. In the scheduled party election on 29 September 2021, there are 766 votes, 383 votes by Diet members and another 383 by party members. How candidates are positioned in the factional power play, their popularity among younger LDP lawmakers, and also rank and file will determine the numbers game.

    With House of Representatives’ four-year term ending in October, and a general election lined up, LDP elites need a leader who demonstrates statesmanship, political vision, boldness in imagining innovative policy responses, and who enjoys popular support as the party seeks a super-majority in the all-powerful Lower House. There is no space for mediocrity at this juncture given the colossal strategic, economic, governance and public health challenges that awaits the new Prime Minister. Japan cannot afford leadership deficit at this critical juncture. Slipping back to its legacy of revolving-door prime ministers is not an option since it will adversely affect key policy matters.

    The Clash of Titans and Suga’s Political Fortune

    The approaching election is as much about electing the next party president as it is about the ensuing power struggle between party elites: the longest serving Secretary-General Nikai Toshihiro and the troika of Abe Shinzo, Aso Taro and Amari Akira (3A). According to LDP constitution, the party president appoints the secretary-general, and both work inextricably in running the party machinery.

    The larger ambition of the 3A to unseat Secretary-General Nikai with Amari1 and undo the concentration of power in Nikai is a critical variable in the party election. The fault lines between Nikai and the 3A became deep-rooted with the 2019 vote-buying scandal in Hiroshima during the House of Councillors election. Nikai’s heavy-handedness and reluctance to own up responsibility for political scandals involving his faction members touched nerves within the party.2 Moreover, his pro-China orientation was not syncing with the party hawks.

    But what started as a high-voltage political battle between the LDP kingmakers has surprisingly led to an unpredictable scenario of ending the road for the incumbent party president and a key aspirant, Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide. Suga was not crafty enough to navigate the turbulent political winds within the party. Despite throwing his hat in the party presidential race early on, with political blessings from the party’s second-in-command Nikai, he perhaps thought it would be a déjà vu moment where Hosoda and Aso factions will extend support automatically, like last September. He perhaps forgot the uncomfortable fact that even though Abe supported Suga to take up his job, he was not his first choice. It was Kishida’s fragile position in that race in relation to Abe’s archenemy and former defence minister Ishiba Shigeru that gave political space to Suga in 2020.3

    Cabinet’s waning approval ratings4 and eroding public confidence on his ability to contain the Delta variant raised doubts on Suga’s leadership. Moreover, Suga and the party’s second-in-command, Nikai have not set the best precedent with their up-scale dinner gathering in Ginza ignoring government warnings. There is also a perception that Nikai was a major factor in influencing Prime Minister Suga’s policy response to contain the spread of COVID-19. He reportedly had reservations over imposing state of emergency, and suspending the Go to Travel campaign drawing from his deep ties with the tourism industry.5

    LDP’s struggle in recent elections, including Yokohama’s mayoral election where Suga’s candidate Okonogi Hachiro lost to opposition-backed Takeharu Yamanaka in August defined disaster for his political fortune. LDP’s Kanagawa chapter opted not to support Suga’s re-election in the presidential race. Moreover, LDP and its junior coalition partner, the Komeito party did not succeed in winning a combined majority in Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election in July. Meanwhile, the outcome of the April by-elections, especially the humiliating defeat in LDP’s traditional bastion in Hiroshima to the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan have posed serious questions.

    Sensing his loosening grip on power, Suga made a few last minute desperate, yet failed attempts to secure his presidency. But playing with the idea of rearranging the LDP chessboard with reshuffling top party executives, and consequently undoing his kingmaker, Nikai had few takers, and seen as a clumsy response to his contender Kishida’s proposal on reforming the party governance. It was a little too late. Furthermore, his inability to garner support from Abe and Aso at this critical juncture on the one hand and unsuccessful meetings with younger leaders like Koizumi Shinjiro on the other made him realise that his race ended before it began. 

    The Spotlight is on

    Unlike Suga’s chaotic political moves, former foreign minister and a key contender in the race, Kishida Fumio has articulated some productive ideas regarding reforming party governance, instituting a government agency under the Cabinet Office to manage COVID-19, and coronavirus stimulus package. Once upon a time, Abe considered him as his successor. But today, in addition to his own faction, support from the Hosoda and Aso faction will be crucial in inching closer to the numbers, but these factions may have their own protégées. It will all culminate into what perks and portfolios Kishida is willing to offer to faction elites on the negotiating table.

    Suga’s departure has opened up space for young sharp leaders from LDP’s talent pool, for instance, Kono Taro (Aso faction) who enjoys popular support given his ability to articulate bold vision with his strategically timed book Moving Japan Forward, or taking tough decisions—whether it is cancelling planned deployment of two Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defence systems or taking up the challenge of being a vaccine czar. The tech-savy, Western-educated modern politician with adequate experience in key ministries including defence and foreign affairs may just be the right fit for the top job. But will the old guard make way for the next generation?

    Will this party leadership race lead to LDP’s first woman president, and consequently the nation’s first woman prime minister? Female political representation and leadership remains unusually low for an economically advanced democracy as Japan. Even though conservative Takaichi Sanae is gearing up for the race, reportedly with Abe’s support given their ideological proximity, reaching the finish line navigating the male-dominated Japanese politics will be a daunting task, especially with her relatively low ratings in the opinion polls. In her upcoming book, she reportedly supports pursuing a “New Abenomics”.6

    Each candidate’s position on key policy directions will crystallise as the campaign starts on September 17, and the series of debate on key verticals like managing COVID-19, economic and fiscal reforms, and foreign and security policy kicks off on September 23.

    Abe as an astute politician is seizing the opportunity by positioning himself at the centrestage of LDP politics. Whether the end-game is to remain just the kingmaker, or to attempt his own stint at the premiership someday remains the big question. He has bounced back from his short sabbatical following health concerns, and is working with other power centres like Aso and Amari, in anchoring and advising a few key parliamentary groups, aimed at driving the policy conversation on key subjects, for instance the semiconductor strategy.

    Suga’s Exit: Game-Changer for the Opposition

    Japan’s opposition leaders are perhaps the most disappointed with his decision to depart from Kantei. With the Lower House election approaching, the opposition strategy was to politically cash in on Suga’s unpopularity, primarily driven by his struggle to contain the COVID-19 crisis. The Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan along with others including Japanese Communist Party, Social Democratic Party, and the Democratic Party for the People, relied on turning public displeasure vis-à-vis Suga administration’s COVID-19 crisis management into substantial political gains in the Lower House election.7 However, with a new Prime Minister in office in the coming weeks, it is time to revisit their election strategy.

    The Way Ahead

    Effective leadership is crucial for delivering good governance and manoeuvring through colossal demographic, economic, security, strategic and foreign policy challenges amid a pandemic. Political stability holds the key. To be fair to Prime Minister Suga, his one year report card does demonstrate his commitment to deliver on a few key agenda, from Digital Agency to carbon neutrality by 2050. Even though he lacked the charisma of his predecessor, he successfully advanced Japan’s geo-strategic and geo-economic ambitions at the global stage. While LDP is most certainly expected to win the upcoming Lower House election (probably with a reduced majority), the party cannot afford weak leadership as it will threaten to inject political instability. But the competing names at this early stage of the party race do hold promise for quality leadership in this election season in Japan.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.

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