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Commentary: How a dark horse became the front-runner to become Japan’s next prime minister

  • September 2, 2020
  • , The Japan Times
  • English Press



PYEONGTAEK, SOUTH KOREA – The race is set. Shinzo Abe’s longtime right-hand man Yoshihide Suga will be taking on Abe ally-turned-political rival Shigeru Ishiba and former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida to determine who will become the next Prime Minister.


But with exceptional rules and only a one-year term as the prize, this is a race unlike any other before.


On Tuesday, the Liberal Democratic Party’s general council decided that the party would choose the next prime minister through emergency voting rules that include one vote per sitting LDP parliamentary member (394) and three votes per LDP prefectural chapter (141) for a total of 535 votes. The winning candidate needs to secure a majority of the votes; in other words, the magic number is 268.


This is a departure from the current LDP rules that changed in 2014, where the party’s presidential race is supposed to include an equal proportion of parliamentary members and local chapter votes. This means that if there are 394 LDP lawmakers in the Diet, the local chapters should get 394 votes allotted to them. That won’t be the case this time, and legislators in Tokyo will have a bigger say.


Adding to the intrigue is that the big names who were candidates in the post-Abe line of succession have given way to Suga, who, by way of conventional LDP voting patterns, was otherwise a dark horse candidate.


Unless we see Liberal Democratic Party members defect from factional lines, Suga is going to win.


The chief Cabinet secretary has the backing of the major factions in the LDP, which already gives him over 264 votes of the 268 he needs to clinch. When you add Suga’s quasi-faction and other supporters, his victory is all but a foregone conclusion.


But there’s a catch. The LDP general council has decided that this special leadership election will only yield a one-year term that will end in September 2021. That means that even if Suga has backers now, he will likely be stacked against all the other contenders next year.

This whole set-up will naturally lead to four questions.


Why would LDP factions rally behind Suga?

Under normal circumstances, Suga’s chances of winning would be slim.


He isn’t affiliated with any faction, and there are several other big names that are, like Kishida and Defense Minister Taro Kono.


Rather, Suga won support as the compromise and continuity candidate.


Each of the factions will have different reasons for backing Suga, instead of forwarding their own candidates.


The simplest explanation is that they don’t want Shigeru Ishiba to win — and there are several reasons for that as well.


The first is that although Ishiba is popular among the public and local LDP chapters, he is generally disliked among LDP executives.


As with most groups, there are personality clashes, but a cloud that has always hung over Ishiba was his willingness to defect from the LDP in the 1990s to form opposition parties such as the New Frontier Party. Although Ishiba came back and has contributed significantly to the LDP since, there are some party leaders that consider his past actions unforgivable.


Others are unhappy that Ishiba could step in to become prime minister despite eschewing support for the administration.


Many have waited in line to succeed Abe, and all but Ishiba had to play by Abe’s rules for the past eight years to hold their spot. Some are now rallying to ensure that Ishiba does not cut their place in what they perceive to be the line of succession.


Part of the decision to back Suga comes from the necessity of public explanation. In making moves to block Ishiba from winning, the LDP will have to justify picking someone who is not the public’s top choice.


After all, in recent polling, Ishiba was far and away the most popular candidate, and cutting out local LDP votes reinforces the notion that the selection was purely faction leader-driven.


The remedy to that is to fall upon the promises of continuity and stability. In backing Suga, the LDP can argue that it is simply extending the current administration until Japan can weather the storms — literal and figurative — that 2020 has wrought.


Backing Suga also gives other candidates another year to build a policy platform and an identity independent from that of the Abe administration. Many imagined that they would have until September 2021 to do so, but they were caught off guard when Abe announced his resignation. Letting Suga take the job now enables them to buy back some time in jostling for pole position.


Finally, as some observers have noted, there are not many who would want to take on the job for the next year with COVID-19, the Olympics, and economic recession looming large.


Outside of Suga and Ishiba, few are prepared to stake their legacy on such tumultuous circumstances.


Why would Suga run?

If Suga is only guaranteed one year in the job, it may seem odd that he would take on the responsibility with such a short expiry. Still, there are reasons why Suga would do this, even with the restricted service life.


First, Suga likely feels like his job is not done. For all of his faults and whatever one thinks of the policies he has championed, Suga has dedicated his whole existence these past eight years to running the government.


He has worked harder than any Cabinet minister under Abe, arriving early and staying late, and he has endured the grueling work schedule longer than any other chief Cabinet secretary in history. Simply as a feature of who he is, Suga will want to do his part to help Japan through the mess of a year that 2020 has been.


Second, Suga knows this is his only shot at prime minister. The wolves are at the door, and those wolves travel in much larger packs than him. Maybe Suga only gets a year in the office, but something is better than nothing. Besides, there is always the remote chance that “Uncle Reiwa” orchestrates a miracle recovery and makes himself irreplaceable — however unlikely that may be.


Why would Ishiba and Kishida still run?

If the deck is already stacked against Ishiba and Kishida, why would they bother to go through the motions of running for party presidency?

For Ishiba, just because the LDP was able to find a workaround to keep local chapters out of this party presidential race, they will not be able to next September.


To stay in the hunt, he has to keep pursuing every opportunity.


Meanwhile, Kishida’s faction members have expressed frustration in the past at their leader’s unwillingness to make moves towards the prime minister’s office, so their advocacy likely contributed to his decision. Like Ishiba, Kishida’s faction will want him to demonstrate that he is still a viable candidate.


Right now, even with little chance of actually winning, both Ishiba and Kishida can present themselves as high profile alternatives to the LDP’s status quo.


If the next administration falters owing to the pandemic, scandal or anything else, they will be waiting in the wings to take over.


Dr. Michael MacArthur Bosack is the 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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