Goodbye Suga, who’s next?
Prime Minister Suga announced he will not run again for his party presidency. The next LDP president will likely become the next Prime Minister of Japan, but, unlike in past years, the primary result is not easily foreseeable, and the role is up for grab
On August 28, 2020, then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced his intention to step down as president of the Liberal Democratic Party, citing a recurring health issue as motivation. The role of president of the LDP (the majority party in Japan since the second post-war save for six years) is logically linked to the role of PM. After little more than a year, on the 3rd of September, Abe’s successor, Yoshihide Suga made the same announcement, but for different reasons. Suga’s unexpected resignation is largely due to the fall in popularity of LDP under his leadership, following a less than successful response to the Covid emergency (according to the Japanese public), an initially slow vaccine rollout and a general lack of communication.
It is not a coincidence that Suga’s resignation came a week after the number of covid cases reached its highest record since the start of the pandemic in Japan (26.121 on August 22nd). But the final nail in the coffin for Suga was the defeat of his close ally Hachiro Okonogi in the mayor election of Yokohama, where Suga himself started his political career.
Suga’s term has been a short but eventful one: on the foreign affairs front, he deepened the special relationship with the US (Suga was the first foreign leader met by Biden at the White House), forwarded the Quad initiative (hosting in October its second ministerial meeting) and reaffirmed the centrality of ASEAN for Japan’s strategy by visiting Vietnam and Indonesia. At the center of his endeavors was the recalibration of Japanese attitude towards China, more cautious and less willing to give room to the expansionism of the PRC. Significative was the link made by Suga between Japanese and Taiwanese security. On the domestic affairs front, noteworthy was the creation of the Digital Agency, that "aims to digitalize administrative procedures in 31 areas such as elderly care and childrearing, while standardizing different systems used by municipalities within five years […]. The agency will also aim to digitalize Covid-19 vaccine certificates by the end of the year". All of this while juggling with the pandemic emergency.
The LDP presidency election will be held on September 29, through a process in which half of the vote (383) will be cast by the Diet (the Japanese parliament) and the other half by the 47 prefectures, each having a number of votes at their disposal according to their population. If an absolute winner is not decided in the first turnout, in the ballot each prefecture will have a single vote, thus granting a larger control of the process to the lawmakers. The vote will be held just a month prior to the parliament election, which are scheduled to take place at the end of October.
Four candidates have officially entered the race: Fumio Kishida, Sanae Takaichi, Taro Kono and Seiko Noda. Kishida is an experienced politician and former foreign minister under the Abe’s administration from 2012 to 2017. He had announced his intention to run for the LDP presidency on August 26, even before Suga gave up his position. Even though he is considered a moderate, he has taken a firm stance on issues such as rearmament against the Chinese threat and against nuclear WMD proliferation (understandably, considering that his district is Hiroshima). Takaichi, former minister of communication, announced her bid for presidency on September 29. She represents the most conservative tendency among the LDP and she’s a close ally of former PM Shinzo Abe. If elected, she would become the first female PM of Japan. Lastly, on September 10 Kono announced that he was running for the presidency.
The current minister of administrative affairs and in charge of the Covid vaccination campaign, he is the youngest (58) of the candidates. Considered a maverick by many of his colleagues, he is the candidate with the most popular support, partly because of his direct approach and his intense use of social media. Noda, who officially entered the race at the last hour, has not got many chances (being mostly isolated in her own party) but her bid contributes in making the race even more volatile.
If the election were decided by popular vote, Kono would probably win by a landmark. But the lawmakers, and not people, decide who gets to be the next president of the DLP. And DLP internal politics are dominated by factions. As of now, the largest faction (Abe’s) is behind Takaichi and it counts 96 members, while the second most numerous faction, led by Financial Minister Taro Aso, is the faction to which Kono belongs. Furthermore, Kono succeeded in receiving the endorsement of Shigeru Ishiba, a lawmaker particularly respected both by rank-and-file members of the party and by the people and leader of his own faction. Kishida is himself the leader of his own faction.
Even though polls have no direct influence on the election many young lawmakers, without a large electoral support at home, eyeing at the parliamentary election in October, may be brought to desert their faction leaders’ instruction and favor a popular party president: it is much easier to be reelected in your own district if you are running for a president beloved by the people.