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Commentary: LDP leadership election: Suga has a target on his back



PYEONGTAEK, SOUTH KOREA – Things are heating up within the Liberal Democratic Party.


This past week has seen a flurry of activity by party heavyweights jockeying for position ahead of the LDP presidential election — now officially slated for late next month. By design, the party is trying to keep things from spilling out into the media, but there are enough puzzle pieces available to formulate a picture of the back-room battles taking place.


One thing the picture reveals is the target on Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s back. That is unsurprising, since he was a compromise candidate that the LDP propped up last year following Shinzo Abe’s sudden resignation. Party leaders designed that compromise to be temporary; after all, if they were fully behind Suga, they would not have limited his presidential term to one year instead of the standard three. With his term coming to an end in September, we are seeing others who have eyes on his position.


Former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida has already announced that he will challenge Suga for the party presidency. Kishida’s supporters have been pushing him to take his shot, and we will see if he is able to maintain his resolve before the formal campaign period begins on Sept. 17.


There are two other candidates who have suggested that they will run: LDP Policy Research Council chairperson Hakubun Shimomura and former Minister for Internal Affairs Sanae Takaichi. While Takaichi may find it difficult to muster the twenty nominations necessary to join the race, Shimomura potentially has the weight of his 96-member home faction to make him a viable candidate.


Meanwhile, Suga is on the ropes. While the Olympics and the ongoing Paralympics have been without major incident, the state of emergency owing to the COVID-19 pandemic persists across several prefectures.


Making Suga’s position even more precarious is the fact that the LDP has performed poorly in recent elections; most notably the Yokohama mayoral vote where former Cabinet member and Suga ally Hachiro Okonogi lost handily.


Suga’s administration has hit record low approval numbers, and a recent Sankei-FNN poll put him not at second or at third, but at seventh place for the public’s choice for prime minister (regulatory reform minister and vaccine czar Taro Kono was the top pick). Now, there are murmurs inside the party that the LDP needs a new face to lead it through the upcoming Lower House election.


Suga is not the only LDP heavyweight who has everything to lose in this party presidential race. LDP Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai put all his stock in Shinzo Abe and then Suga. While this has enabled him to become the longest serving secretary general in the LDP’s history, he has little to offer other faction heads and no viable candidates among his own supporters to succeed Suga.


The Nikai faction may be the LDP’s fourth largest, but its membership represents a case of quantity over quality. The faction has produced such hits like the minister for the Northern Territories who could not remember the names of the four territories. And who could forget the minister for cybersecurity who did not know how to use a computer? The bottom line is that Nikai has no one in his personal circle to make a run for the top spot, so his best play is riding the coattails of other power players.


Given that this is their last shot, Suga and Nikai are all in. But even so, the numbers do not currently add up in their favor. For the party presidential election, there will be 383 votes afforded to each of the LDP’s sitting parliamentary members and an equal number apportioned to the LDP’s local chapters. For a candidate to win, he or she must gain a majority of the votes, not just a plurality. If a candidate does not get more than 383 votes, the election goes to a second round that consists of all sitting Diet members and just one vote from each prefectural chapter of the LDP, so the magic number becomes 215 votes to win.


What we will see in the coming weeks is coalition building inside the LDP. The objective is simple: Secure at least enough parliamentary votes to guarantee a victory in a second round runoff.


Suga has shored up the Nikai faction (47 votes) and his own group of supporters (7 votes), giving him a total of 54. Meanwhile, if Shimomura can get his home Hosoda faction on board, he has 96 votes to his name. Kishida’s faction will generate at least 46 votes for him. That leaves the Aso faction, Takeshita faction, Ishiba faction and Ishihara faction who control 134 more votes.


There are several incentives candidates can offer in a party presidential election. The most common are Cabinet postings and promises for prioritizing certain policy agenda items. In some cases, the incentive for backing someone other than Suga might be to gain a fresh face to lead the party through what is sure to be a tough Lower House election.


Incentives aside, Suga has a powerful trump card: He has quietly threatened to dissolve the Lower House this coming month to force a general election within a few weeks after the party presidential race. This threat is tantamount to Suga telling the LDP, “If I go down, I’m taking you with me.”


The government has just extended the state of emergency to eight other prefectures and an ugly, hard-fought LDP party presidential election does not play well when the party’s primary selling point is stability. Throw in having to plan and execute a sooner-than-expected Lower House campaign with the Komeito while fighting a party presidential election, and Suga’s threat will reverberate inside the LDP Headquarters.


Suga’s play here is to hold the party hostage. He wants any contenders to abandon the challenge and allow him to run uncontested because he cannot guarantee that he can secure enough votes to win if someone gets the nomination to run against him. It is a bold move that will eliminate a lot of goodwill he may have had inside the LDP, but desperate times call for desperate measures.


The wildcards in all this are Shinzo Abe and Taro Aso. Aso commands the second largest LDP faction and Abe still carries a significant amount of influence in his home Hosoda faction and the third largest Takeshita faction.


Abe and Aso have alluded that they will support Suga, but it will be important to watch where their allegiances fall in the coming weeks because they can make all the difference. If they come out in vehement support for Suga, he will probably survive past September. If they decide to back someone else or leave it to the party’s devices, Suga’s chances are dim.


These next few weeks will be critical for the LDP, and nothing except for the dates of the party presidential race is set in stone. This may be the beginning of the end of Suga’s prime ministership, or he may be able to pull off a victory that was just as unlikely as his win last year. Until the LDP decides which of those it will be, there will be rough seas ahead for Japan’s ruling party.


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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