Japanese Politics Heats Up: the Contest for the Next LDP Leader

Japanese Politics Heats Up: the Contest for the Next LDP Leader

Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the country’s dominant political party, is set for a leadership election on 29th September. The outcome of the election will be significant as the winner will become Japan’s new Prime Minister and head the party in Japan’s general election, scheduled for late November this year. Competition is likely to be fierce for the LDP’s top spot. Presuming that the LDP wins this year’s general election, the victor of the leadership election will have the opportunity to shape Japan’s national trajectory.

The Leadership Election: An Outline

Campaigning for the LDP’s leadership election is due to begin on 17th September, while the ballot count is organized for 29th September. At the time of writing, three LDP members have announced their intention to run for party head.

The first of these is Kishida Fumio who, among other roles, was Japan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs between 2012 and 2017. Kishida expressed his intention to run on 26th August. The second is Takaichi Sanae, who twice served as Minister for Internal Affairs and Communications under Abe Shinzō’s 2012-2020 administration. Takaichi first expressed her intent to run on 5th August. Thirdly, there are strong indications that Kōno Tarō, the current Minister for Administrative Reform and Regulatory Reform, will formally announce his candidacy soon. Sources close to him have already indicated his intent to run.

Though incumbent Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide had initially expressed his intention to run for re-election, on 3rd September Suga made a u-turn and opted not to run, citing his desire to focus on Japan’s COVID-19 response. It is highly likely that poor approval ratings for Suga’s administration factored into his decision; as of the end of August, Suga’s approval rating stood at around 26%. Keeping in mind Japan’s upcoming general election, to be held by 28th November, Suga’s decision to step aside as the face of the LDP at the end of his term is understandable as an attempt to strengthen the LDP’s electoral prospects. The defeat of the LDP in Yokohama, Japan’s second largest city, in Yokohama’s August mayoral election further suggests that Suga’s decision to step aside is likely motivated by electoral concerns.

Who Might Win?

It is possible to obtain a clearer picture of who may emerge victorious in the LDP leadership election by analysing the popularity of the candidates among the public and the backing each has within the LDP.

Kōno Tarō appears a particularly strong contender to be Japan’s next PM due to his popularity among part of the Japanese population. Highlighting this, Kōno topped a recent Kyodo News opinion poll into who’d be most suited for the role with 31% of the vote. Public votes may not directly affect the LDP election, but it is likely that LDP members will take Kōno’s popularity into consideration given the context of the approaching general election. As a member of the Shikōkai, a 53-member LDP faction headed by Deputy PM Asō Tarō, it is quite likely that Kōno will receive some factional support which could enhance his chance of success.

However, unified factional support for Kōno is not guaranteed. Some members of Asō’s faction are allegedly cautious of Kōno given some of his prior actions such as his cancellation of the construction of 2 Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defence sites, purportedly without having gained an internal consensus. A portion of Asō’s faction is likely to lend their support to Kishida Fumio, who is also likely to receive votes from the faction he heads, the 34-member Kōchikai. Nevertheless, Kishida lacks the endorsement of influential party figures, unlike his rivals Kōno and Takaichi Sanae. Takaichi has been endorsed by fomer PM Abe Shinzō while Ishiba Shigeru, a former Defence Minister who also polls well among the public, has shown signs of support for Kōno.

Taking the candidates’ supporters into consideration, it is probable that competition will be closest between Kōno and Kishida. Of the two candidates, Kōno appears to be at an advantage given his comparatively better public profile and the likelihood that he will receive support from both Asō’s faction and that of Ishiba, the 17-member Suigetsukai. Takaichi, despite her support from Abe, lacks the profile or factional backing of the other candidates. Consequently, it is less likely that she will win the election.

Post-Suga Policy

Kishida Fumio has already voiced a number of the policies he intends to pursue if victorious in the leadership election. Where healthcare and Japan’s COVID-19 response is concerned, Kishida aims to establish a health crisis management agency in order to strengthen Japan’s ability to respond to future health crises, as well as provisional healthcare facilities as part of his pledge to ensure satisfactory access to healthcare for all. He has also come out in favour of a multi-billion yen stimulus plan incorporating the resumption of social security payments to households and businesses. Moreover, Kishida has argued that the Bank of Japan should maintain its 2% inflation target.

As the incumbent Minister for Administrative Reform and Regulatory Reform, it is quite likely that Kōno would continue to pursue digitalization and improved bureaucratic efficiency if he becomes Japan’s next PM. On energy policy Kōno, who has made comments critical of nuclear energy in the past, is likely to take steps to enhance the share of renewable sources like wind and solar energy in Japan’s power grid. In fact, after poll results indicating Kōno’s public appeal were publicized earlier this month, renewable energy stocks on the Tokyo Stock Exchange jumped. Kōno has also discussed the necessity of reforms to improve the sustainability of Japan’s ‘macroeconomic slide’ pension mechanism, and so it is possible that an initiative may be launched in this area if he is successful.

The victor, regardless who wins, will have to work hard on Japan’s struggle with COVID and its economic troubles if they hope to remain in office longer than Yoshihide Suga and avoid a return to the situation pre-Abe, where Japan saw a string of ‘revolving door’ Prime Ministers.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Politics

About Author

Samuel Arnold-Parra

Samuel graduated from LSE in 2020 with a degree in International Relations and History. Since graduating, he has been building up experience in research and analysis. Currently, he is conducting voluntary research on Japanese national and sub-national responses to COVID-19. He is eager to use his skills in Spanish and Japanese to contribute valuable insights focusing on Japan and Latin America.