The Diet session convened on Jan. 18 is the first ordinary session for Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. Will he be able to ride out the 150-day-long ordeal without a hitch, win the party presidency in September, and secure victory in the Lower House election sometime before October? How can we better predict the future of the Suga administration?
In this regard, TV programs and other media reports often focus on the approval rating of the Cabinet. Suga, who enjoyed a high approval rating in the beginning of his tenure, has seen his popularity plummet as Japan became engulfed by the pandemic’s third wave.
In an opinion poll reported by NHK on Jan. 12, 40% of respondents approved of the Cabinet and 38%, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Mikio Aoki, former leader of LDP Upper House caucus, was of the opinion that “a prime minister should resign if the sum of Cabinet and party approval ratings falls below 50.” Although the situation is not yet quite that dire, the sum is now three-quarters of the sum last September, which was 103.
However, there is an indicator of administration strength that Nagatacho values more than opinion polls: election votes.
The problem with opinion polls is that they don’t show how strongly respondents approve or disapprove. Many who strongly demand a Prime Minister step down when asked their opinion of him on a telephone-based poll often turn out to be too lazy to vote. In an election, it is not unusual that the ruling party wins in spite of a low approval rating.
From past experience, it is often judged that people’s approval of the Cabinet is lukewarm when the reason for their approval is “because the Cabinet is somewhat better than the alternatives.” As an indicator of Cabinet popularity, however, actual voting behavior is much more reliable than opinion polls.
This is why lawmakers are arguing whether or not losing two by-elections on April 25 will lead to political upheaval.
As an indicator of the Suga administration’s future, there is another election that is even more important: the Akita gubernatorial election on April 4.
As a Diet by-election is often fought between the ruling party and an opposition party, media tend to report that losing a seat to the opposition, including by not fielding a candidate, would “damage the administration.” People may think winning or losing this particular gubernatorial election wouldn’t matter much for the administration, as the contestants—incumbent governor Takahisa Satake and former Lower House member Toshihide Muraoka—are both originally from the LDP.
But the Akita gubernatorial election is important, not only because Akita is the home prefecture of the prime minister. Although Suga has not stated his preference, he is generally seen as supporting candidate Muraoka. Some speculate Suga is not keen for Satake’s reelection because the incumbent governor was uncooperative when the central government tried to deploy the Aegis Ashore missile defense system in the prefecture.
Suga loves to involve himself in regional politics. In the 2019 Hokkaido gubernatorial election, Suga pushed Naomichi Suzuki for governor instead of an ex-bureaucrat candidate widely supported by the LDP’s Hokkaido Federation.
On the same day in Fukuoka, a candidate backed by Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso lost the gubernatorial election. If these two elections had turned out differently, Suga might not have become prime minister and former Policy Research Council Chairman Fumio Kishida, supported by Aso, might have formed his administration instead.
Except for the governorship in Hokkaido, Suga’s record has not been much to look at. In many gubernatorial elections, Suga’s aggressive support didn’t result in his candidate’s victory, as seen in Shiga in 2014 and Saga in 2015, where Suga’s candidates failed to reach a compromise with local organizations.
It appears that unlike Diet members who are mindful of the prime minister’s will and preferences, local leaders and council members are not overly intimidated by the power of Nagatacho and often react against top-down decisions forced on them. Although Suga is a former city council member, he is rather insensitive to this point, perhaps because his interest has always been in national politics.
An election between candidates of the same party reveals the true strength of politicians unlike competitions between ruling and opposition parties, which are often influenced by fluctuation in public opinion. For this reason, professional politicians are fixing their gaze on the election in Akita.