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Rise and fall of post-Abe candidates in coronavirus crisis

There has been a noticeable contrast between “post-Abe” candidates in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in their responses for the new coronavirus countermeasures. The current standing of each candidate becomes apparent through the unpacking of the behind-the-scenes struggle to amend the fiscal 2020 supplementary budget, which underwent cabinet approval for the second time on April 20.


One candidate who has been greatly damaged by recent events is LDP Policy Research Council chairperson Fumio Kishida.


Kishida was initially in favor of an across-the-board cash handout as part of the supplementary budget. In consideration of objections by the Ministry of Finance and Finance Minister Taro Aso, Kishida drafted a proposal to provide cash only to households with a substantial decrease in income, suppressing opposition from within the LDP.


Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who views Kishida as a strong candidate to succeed himself, accepted Kishida’s proposal at one point, even increasing the household subsidy from 200,000 to 300,000 yen in consideration of Kishida.


After the supplementary budget proposal was approved by the Cabinet on April 7, Abe accepted LDP secretary-general Toshihiro Nikai and Komeito’s counterproposal, and changed the amount of handouts to 100,000 yen per person. Those close to Kishida say that this reversal was a big blow to him. Kishida is at a crossroads: Can he continue to attract support within the LDP as the person responsible for its policy making. 


Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga was not involved in the final decision to request closures of all schools from elementary to high school. This prompted comments that there is a “schism” between him and the prime minister. When Abe faced criticism over the decision to distribute two cloth masks to each household, or over the social media post showing him relaxing at home with the other half of a split screen showing  singer-songwriter Gen Hoshino, Suga gave a positive spin to Abe’s actions during press conferences. Suga’s stance of being the Abe administration’s operations manager has not changed.


Although Suga has coordinated policy measures among the ministries, he has not taken a leading role in the creation of any specific measures. Compared with Kishida, who was deeply involved in the struggle over the cash payments, Suga’s presence seems to have faded.


One “post-Abe” candidate who has increased his presence is Yasutoshi Nishimura, who is in charge of both measures against the new coronavirus and economic measures as minister for economic revitalization. Nishimura advised Abe early on to declare a state of emergency, and faced off with Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike over the business closure requests.


Nishimura has made arrangements so that governors can use economic revitalization grants to support businesses that complied with the closure requests in the form of “cooperation payments.” Bureaucrats were half-hearted about this measure, saying that a uniform payment just for closing a business runs counter to the idea of regional revitalization. Nishimura discussed the issue with minister for regional revitalization Seigo Kitamura and realized the measure in the third week of April.


Foreign minister Toshimitsu Motegi is hampered by limitations on diplomatic activity, his showcase activity, because of entry bans instituted in response to the coronavirus outbreak in many countries.


He had planned to invite Russian foreign minister Lavrov to Japan in March 2020 to move forward on concluding a peace treaty between the two countries. This is their most important bilateral issue. The date of the visit is yet to be scheduled. The World Trade Organization (WTO) ministerial meeting scheduled for June 2020 in Kazakhstan, which Motegi was to attend for a discussion on future WTO reforms, has been cancelled.


Nevertheless, Motegi has exerted leadership in the return of overseas Japanese nationals, discussing the issue with various foreign ministers himself and charting a course for their return.


Support for former LDP secretary-general Shigeru Ishiba has been growing, even though Ishiba does not currently hold a government position or a senior LDP position. In a joint Sankei and FNN opinion poll conducted on April 11 and 12, 20.2% of the respondents selected Ishiba as the most appropriate person for next prime minister. It was the first time in two months that Ishiba ranked number one. 


Recently, Ishiba has not been critical of Abe, and limits himself to releasing messages via the media. In an April 17 blog post titled “Things to be done as quickly as possible,” Ishiba proposed seven items including “avoid overwhelming the healthcare system with a rapid increase in patients in serious condition.”

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