By Ryutaro Abe, staff writer
Whoever becomes the next prime minister of Japan, his term will end in Sept. 2021, which is the originally scheduled end of the tenure for outgoing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Even if Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, who is currently enjoying a solid lead within the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), wins the party election, many LDP members regard Suga’s job as prime minister is “to fill in for Abe,” as one of veteran Takeshita faction member said. However, backed by nearly 80% of 394 LDP Diet member votes (polled by Asahi Shimbun), the prospect of a “full-fledged Suga administration” is growing.
During an NTV program broadcast on Sept. 2, Suga was asked if he would pinch hit for a year. He looked perplexed and said, “I don’t quite understand what you mean.” These days Suga tells his friends, “If I say I will only be in office for a year, nobody will listen to me,” suggesting that he is interested in aiming for a long-term administration.
There are many potential obstacles to Suga’s achieving this goal. Factions inside the LDP are one potential obstacle. For Suga, who doesn’t belong to a faction, it would be difficult to win the presidential election without all-out support from the factions. Diet members overwhelmingly back Suga now because he successfully secured support from five factions other than than the Kishida and Ishiba factions. But competition has already started among the factions over leadership positions in Suga’s future administration. One wrong move on Suga’s part might cause him to lose factional support, which could jeopardize his new administration.
Therefore, it is important for Suga to secure prefectural votes, a total of 141 votes comprising three votes from each prefecture. On Sept. 7, Suga took time from a packed schedule to visit the Tokyo Metropolitan assembly and meet with the LDP assembly members. He asked for their support in the coming election, mentioning his past experience as a Yokohama city assembly member.
The LDP presidential election this year will be held in a “abbreviated” form without direct voting by local LDP members. Those opposed to the decision complain that “the party chose the voting system to give advantage to Suga, whose support in the Diet is strong,” in the words of an Ishiba faction member. So, in order to prove the legitimacy of the election, Suga wants to secure the overwhelming support of local members. Achieving this will enable him to make cabinet appointments without heeding the demands of factions and increase his political clout.
After the launch of the new administration, the focus will likely to shift to the timing of the dissolution of the Lower House.
If the new administration wins a snap election after the dissolution, the ruling party will have four more years in the Lower House. In that case, the LDP will not field an opposing candidate in the presidential election in Sept. 2021, increasing the possibility of a long-term Suga administration.
A growing number inside the ruling and opposition parties expect the snap election in September after the budget request is finalized for the next year’s budget compilation. If Suga wins the election by capitalizing on the public’s hopes for the new administration, his foundation will be secure and the political landscape will move one step closer to a “dominant Suga,” said a senior LDP official.
Meanwhile, the spread of the coronavirus could complicate the timing of the snap election. Asked about this during a joint press conference on Sept. 8, Suga said, “We should put the highest priority on preventing the spread of the virus.” The new cabinet will have to judge the right timing for dissolving the Lower House by taking the virus situation and the public opinion into account.