MITURU OBE, Nikkei staff writer
TOKYO — Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party on Tuesday decided how it will elect its new leader following the surprise announcement of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s resignation on Aug. 28 after nearly eight years in office. Under party rules, the new leader will serve only the remainder of Abe’s three-year tenure in the party post, which runs until late September 2021.
Since the LDP has been in control of Japanese politics for most of the post-World War II period, its choice of a leader, who carries the title of party president, will have major implications for the course of the nation’s economy as well as its role in the Group of Seven and broader geopolitics in the Asia-Pacific region.
Key questions are whether the new leader can extend Abe’s strong and stable leadership or signal a return to a period of so-called revolving-door prime ministers when many served for short periods.
Here are five issues to keep in mind for the coming leadership race and what comes after it is decided.
How is a new leader elected?
The LDP said that the vote will be held in a slimmed down format involving 394 lawmakers and 141 representatives from the party’s 47 prefectural chapters, but will not include the 1.09 million rank-and-file party members.
A party official said that the format was approved at a meeting of the party’s executive council on Tuesday. The official said the election needs to be held as soon as possible to relieve Abe of his burdens and also to cope with urgent issues related to the coronavirus pandemic. Abe cited his declining health in announcing his resignation.
About 10 young and middle-ranking Diet members, including Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi, have called for an inclusive vote, according to the LDP. But party Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai opposes the idea. “It is necessary to establish a new government as soon as possible,” Nikai said. “I would like to request an election be held at a general meeting of the members of both houses of the Diet for the sake of urgency.”
The LDP’s executive council, which is responsible for setting election details, will announce on Wednesday when the vote will take place, amid expectations that it will be held on Sept. 14.
The party normally elects its leader at a party convention — the highest decision-making body — involving all party members. But according to the rules, the president can also be elected in a simplified format — involving only lawmakers and three representatives from each of the 47 prefectural chapters — in emergency situations.
Under this format, the new leader will be chosen in a majority vote among a total of 535 ballots, instead of the usual one of 788 ballots split equally between lawmakers and rank-and-file officials. This format will thus give more weight to the preferences of lawmakers than to rank-and-file members.
The method is expected to favor candidates such as Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga who are close to Abe and have support among lawmakers, over grassroots candidates such as former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba, who is the most popular choice among the party’s rank-and-file members and the public at large but has little support among LDP lawmakers.
Why does the LDP leadership race matter?
Since the LDP-led coalition holds a majority in both chambers of the Diet, Japan’s parliament, and it’s the Diet that elects the prime minister, becoming the leader of the LDP essentially means becoming the prime minister of Japan.
The current LDP-led coalition government is expected to call a special Diet session to elect the new prime minister as early as Sept. 16, following the party vote.
What role do factions play?
Factions, or groups, within the LDP’s parliamentary caucus play a key role in determining how many votes each candidate can expect from fellow lawmakers, who account for three quarters of the total number of ballots in the current election format.
The biggest faction is the one from which Abe comes from and has 98 members. It is expected to back Suga, who supported Shinzo Abe throughout the entirety of his second government between 2012-2020 as a behind-the-scenes coordinator for inter-ministerial policy issues and as manager of personnel affairs at government ministries.
Suga is also endorsed by the LDP’s second largest faction led by Finance Minister Taro Aso with 54 members and by a faction led by LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai with 47 members.
“Suga has the strongest case to make in terms of his ability to govern from day one,” says Tobias Harris, senior vice president at Teneo Intelligence, a political risk consultancy. “Given the most important task facing the next prime minister will be controlling the COVID-19 pandemic and promoting economic recovery, it is little surprise that party leaders are opting for the candidate who will be the most likely to provide administrative continuity.”
Other expected candidates have been hard-pressed to garner support from fellow lawmakers. Former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida leads a faction with 47 members but has struggled to win backing from other factions. Another contender, Ishiba, also leads a faction but it has only 19 members.
What is the outlook for a general election?
A general election will have to be called by October 2021 when the four-year term of the members of the Diet’s lower house comes to an end.
But there is talk that the LDP-led government will call a snap election as soon as a new prime minister is elected.
Historically, a new prime minister tends to be received more positively by the public. Already, the support rating for the LDP has jumped 6 points to 47% in an opinion poll conducted by Nikkei following the announcement of Abe’s resignation. The survey showed that the largest opposition force, the Constitutional Democratic Party, has a support rating of merely 5%.
More than 60% of the respondents said that they want to see the LDP-Komeito coalition remain in power.
The elections of a new party leader and prime minister are also likely to dominate the news cycle in Japan over the next couple of weeks, stealing thunder from opposition parties, which is poised to complete a merger around the middle of September, and putting the LDP in a favorable position ahead of a general election.
But ultimately all depends on how popular the new prime minister actually turns out to be. Without strong support, the new government will find it difficult to call a snap election and solidify its political base.
The new leader’s ability to keep the party united depends to a large extent on his ability to deliver electoral victory. Abe has been such a strong leader because he carried the LDP to sixth straight victories in national elections since 2012.
What about the 2021 party convention?
The LDP will need to hold a formal leadership election involving all party members in September 2021 at the end of the three-year term of the officeholder. Thus, If reelected, the next party president would end up remaining as LDP leader — and presumably prime minister — for the next four years.
But there is a possibility that the leader could be replaced in the party election if opinion grows within the LDP that he isn’t strong enough to lead the party in elections. In that case, the next leader will prove to have been a mere caretaker serving out the remainder of Abe’s term.
Japanese voters are clearly looking for political stability rather than a return to revolving-door leadership. The Nikkei opinion poll shows that 56% said they want the next leader to stay in office for four years or longer.