Is Japan’s LDP changing?
Amb Gurjit Singh

There is a change afoot in the normally placid politics of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which governs Japan.

On Friday 17 September, four candidates emerged with varied views. This includes two women candidates. Their multiple candidacies, the diversity of the views and apprehension that they have caused the factions which govern the LDP, indicate that some change is happening.

The four candidates are Kono Taro, 58, the most liberal, among them. Another liberal candidate is Noda Seiko, 61. Most of the mainstream factions are backing, Kishida Fumio, 64. Takaichi Sanae, 60, is an outside choice. All the candidates have previously, unsuccessfully tried for the leadership.

This election for the LDP president due on 26 September is routine. Its impact is important. Every three years, a new election to the LDP presidency takes place. This is being held on schedule. What is different is that the incumbent leader, Suga Yoshihide, who stepped in for an ailing Abe Shinzo a year ago, has decided not to run for the presidency.

Moreover, within a month or so, general elections to the lower house of parliament are expected. This adds to the momentum of the LDP presidency, since the President will automatically become the Prime Minister, as per current tradition. Suga, quit the leadership of the party, and consequently will lose the Premiership as he lacked the political depth.1 He lost the support of factions and his ratings were low. When he replaced Abe as the nominated successor, a year ago, five of the six factions of the LDP backed him.2 At this time, before his resignation, only one faction was willing to support him.

Though Suga handled the COVID crisis, and held the obligatory Olympic Games,3 his ratings were extremely poor. He was held responsible for the poor facilitation of COVID relief, the low vaccination effort, both of which were linked to inadequate administrative reforms, which prevented a more digital governance.

Let us see the current candidates. As per a Kyodo poll,4 most of the LDP member’s, 48.6%, support Kono. The current ‘vaccination minister’ is in charge of Disaster Management and also handles administrative reforms. Kono has not obtained the open blessings of his faction leader, and Deputy PM, Aso Taro. Aso is apprehensive of Kono’s liberal credentials. However, Kono is popular among LDP legislators and the rank and file of the party. Most interestingly, he has this high popularity now despite being the minister in charge of COVID relief, vaccinations and administrative governance, the very issues on which Suga was found wanting.

Kishida Fumio, the former Foreign Minister has a solid backing of his 46-member faction. In the Kyodo poll he secured 18.5% of LDP member’s support. He also ran in last few LDP elections. Most LDP elders did not feel he had the right credentials to be PM. However, given the current mixed scenario, he is seen as the establishment candidate, where the larger factions of Abe (96 members) and Aso (53 member) are both quietly backing him, even though Kono belongs to Aso’s faction.5 Is Kishida’s lack of charisma today viewed as a positive sign of somebody who will not rock the LDP boat?

Takaichi Sanae, is a former interior minister, and considered a longshot candidate. She has surprisingly picked up the support of 20 LDP legislators, which is the minimum required for a candidacy. She has 15 % support in the Kyodo poll.

There is a view that the Hosoda faction of Abe, the largest within the LDP, is also supporting her. She is not a member of the faction but her candidacy, as a conservative candidate is positively viewed. She has the most vocal views critical of China; support for Japan's rising defence expenditure and amending the Constitution to allow Japan to play a bigger international role. These were the Abe agenda.6 However, Takaichi being a woman, suffers the handicap in the current way politics in Japan runs. She has appeared from out of the field. If she wins, it will be a surprise. Her main role may be to divide the conservative votes.

The fourth candidate is Noda Seiko, who comes from an important family of Gifu prefecture, and had been telecom minister. Currently, the executive acting secretary general of the LDP, she is a liberal and an open supporter of infertility treatment, rights for women, and gays, and a large-scale spending by the government to overcome economic downturn which Japan faces. She has often talked of herself as a potential PM, but it is a sign of the times that she too was able to pick up support of 20 LDP legislators, so that she could enter the election. However, she secured barely 3.3% support in the recent poll.

The LDP election system was originally tightly controlled by the factions. Each of the factions has a lineage. Some have split and others have conjoined. The faction leaders among themselves used to fix the leader of the party and the important posts in the party, like the Secretary General. However, winds of change brought into play the role of LDP members, all across Japan. The LDP has over 1 million members whose voice was rarely heard in the election of the party's leadership. Under extant rules now, the party members will have as many votes as there are LDP legislators to elect an LDP president, every three years. Currently the LDP has 383MPs. Hence, the party membership will also have 383 votes.

The legislators are divided on factional lines. The party membership is more a manifestation of the popular mood. The reason why the faction leaders consider Kono a threat is because he is going over their heads in a non-factional way, and securing the support of the party membership where nearly half the members have expressed support for him in a survey. Within the LDP legislators, he is also commanding support cutting across factions, particularly among younger legislators. Younger in the Japanese sense, does not mean young in age, but means legislators who have served three terms or less, and whose voices are often stifled. Therefore, Kono represents a liberal generational change in the LDP and at 58 is remarkably young for a possible Japanese PM.

The four contenders are now campaigning and also seeking support of several unaffiliated factions. These include the Nikai faction which was backing Suga, the faction of Foreign Minister Motegi and unaffiliated legislators. The 17-member faction of former Defence Minister Ishiba is now backing Kono as Ishiba is not running. Suga is backing Kono, as are youthful ministers like Koizumi Shinjiro and Fukuda Tatsuo.

In the first round of the election, each of the LDP's 383MPs have a vote. Another 383 votes will be based on the preferences of the LDP members. If a candidate wins a majority from these 766 votes, s/he will be the LDP President. If no one wins a majority, the top 2 vote achievers will have a run-off. In that the 382 MPs will dominate as members votes will be reduced to one per each of the LDP's 47 prefectural wings.

As the factions are not united on their support (younger MPs are unwilling to follow party orders) the Party managers have probably engineered a larger number of candidates to divide the votes and prevent a majority of 384 votes in the first round. If a run-off occurs, the members votes become less consequential and allow party stalwarts from marshalling factions to choose one of the two. In a Yomiuri poll of MPs, Kono and Kishida both have 20% support while Takaichi has 15%.7About 40% MPs are presently undecided.

Thus, a run-off will likely see a return to faction led politics. Kono is earnestly trying to secure a victory in the first round but his support, though much larger in the Party, than others, is not overwhelming.

Endnotes
  1. Gurjit Singh, Why Japan’s Suga slid, Gateway House,7 September 2021, https://www.gatewayhouse.in/why-japans-suga-slid/
  2. GurjitSingh, Yoshihide Suga: blessed by Ganesha, Gateway House, 5 October 2020, https://www.gatewayhouse.in/suga-yoshihide-ganesha/
  3. Gurjit Singh, Obligatory Olympics, Gateway House, 8 June 2021,https://www.gatewayhouse.in/obligatory-olympics-tokyo-2021/
  4. Kono tops Kyodo poll of LDP members as most fit to be Japan PM, The Mainichi, 18 September 2021, https://mainichi.jp/english/articles/20210918/p2g/00m/0na/025000c
  5. Yomiuri poll of LDP lawmakers shows neck-and-neck race for Suga successor, Yomiuri Shinbun, 17 September 2021, https://the-japan-news.com/news/article/0007784661
  6. Abe disciple Takaichi throws hat into LDP leadership race, Asahi Shinbun, 9 September 2021, https://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/14436859
  7. Yomiuri poll of LDP lawmakers shows neck-and-neck race for Suga successor, Yomiuri Shinbun, 17 September 2021, https://the-japan-news.com/news/article/0007784661

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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