When Prime Minister Abe Shinzo announced his intention to step down from office on August 28, the focus of Japanese political discourse immediately shifted to speculations about the next president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and subsequently the new prime minister. Japanese media were rife with speculations about various probable successors. But only three contenders have entered the race to fill the post vacated by the outgoing LDP president: former Foreign Minister Kishida Fumio, former Defense Minister Ishiba Shigeru, and current Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide.
Numbers matter the most in a democracy and that is the case in the intra-party presidential elections. However, the way the leading LDP factions have thrown their weight behind Suga, an LDP lawmaker not affiliated with any faction, and the way the method of conducting the presidential election has been decided have raised eyebrows in the LDP as well as among the Japanese public. Instead of following the custom of concurrently holding primaries — where millions of LDP rank-and-file members and lawmakers in both houses of the Japanese Diet cast their votes — the party leadership has decided to treat the current situation as an emergency and hold a limited election in the place of a regular one.
During the regular presidential elections, a fine balance is maintained between the votes of LDP lawmakers and grassroots voters. For example, the combined strength of the LDP in both houses of the Japanese parliament is 394 at present. The grassroots LDP members should also have 394 votes, as has been the precedent. However, the LDP executives, authorized by the outgoing party president to conduct the election, have treated this election as an emergency case and have allocated three votes each to the executives of 47 LDP prefectural chapters, totaling 141 votes, instead of holding a nationwide vote among the grassroots party members.
It is not that this is the first time an LDP presidential election is being treated as an urgent one. A similar format was adopted when Abe and Fukuda Yasuo resigned from the premiership in 2007 and 2008, respectively. But those were formal resignations. This time Abe has only announced his intention to step down and he is still very much active — he has been making phone calls to his counterparts around the world and has made the announcements in the capacity of the prime minister for emergency evacuations amid the typhoon Haishen.
Why did the LDP not go for a nationwide poll, allowing its rank-and-file members to cast their votes? Holding a truncated LDP presidential election seems to be a well calculated strategy by the present LDP Secretariat to deny a chance to Abe’s political rivals within the party. Public opinion surveys suggest that Ishiba, who unsuccessfully challenged Abe in the 2012 and 2018 LDP presidential elections, had a sizable lead over other contenders for the top party post. In the Kyodo opinion poll conducted on August 30, the former defense minister was considered the top choice by the respondents, gaining 34.3 percent support. He was followed by Suga with 14.3 percent, Defense Minister Kono Taro with 13.6 percent, Environment Minister Koizumi Shinjiro with 10.1 percent and Kishida, currently the LDP policy chief, with 7.5 percent.
Since Ishiba has been a rare critic of Abe’s policies from within the party, he is not liked by party elites, especially those close to Abe, even though the rank-and-file members remain sympathetic to him. For example, in the 2018 LDP presidential race, when Ishiba challenged Abe, who was seeking a third extension for the post, he got roughly 45 percent of the rank-and-file votes and gained more votes than Abe in 10 out of 47 prefectures. Apparently the LDP is not keen to take any chance with full-fledged primaries, which could have given a chance to Abe’s arch-rival Ishiba.
It must be noted that days before Abe achieved the record of becoming the longest serving Japanese prime minister, the Japan Times quoted an unnamed aide to Abe as saying: “Anyone is fine [as the next leader], as long as it’s not Ishiba … Even Suga would be fine.” It seems that the LDP’s Secretariat and leading factions will do their best to deny Ishiba the chance to replace Abe. Nor were they keen to bet on Kishida, a close aide to Abe once considered a favorite choice within the party to succeed the current prime minister, because he had low rating in successive public opinion polls. Supporting Kishida with nationwide LDP primary elections may have proven to be a gamble for the LDP executive, paving the way for Ishida instead, who enjoys more support among the rank-and-file members. Therefore, the LDP decision to exclude grassroots members from a vote to pick the new leader was hardly a surprise.
But the decision to exclude the rank-and-file LDP members from voting did not go down well within the party. Following the announcement, around 145 LDP Diet members, 403 regional assembly members, and 10 LDP prefectural chapters submitted separate petitions asking the LDP executives to allow non-Diet party members to cast their ballots. A public opinion poll conducted by the Yomiuri Shimbun also suggests that the public at large did not approve of the LDP’s decision to exclude party primaries. In the Yomiuri poll, 59 percent of the respondents said this method of election was “not appropriate” while only 34 percent said it was appropriate. Initially, the LDP remained unmoved and argued that this is an emergency election and conducting an elaborate election will take too long, creating a leadership vacuum. Koizumi, who holds the post of environment minister in the present cabinet, slammed this explanation as “a complete lie.” Amid the growing call to allow general LDP members to vote, the party has asked the LDP chapters to decide their own course on how to reflect the will of the grassroot party members in the upcoming presidential elections.
Out of the 47 LDP prefectural chapters, 43 have decided to conduct primaries to decide the fate of the three votes each prefectural chapter has been allocated. The decision of the LDP chapters must be welcomed as it will reflect the choices of the grassroots workers. But the 47 LDP chapters, with three votes each, have only 141 votes; their votes will not carry equal weight as that of the LDP lawmakers, who have altogether 394. Therefore, the Diet members will have an upper hand in the party president’s election.
The major factions of the ruling party have already announced their support to Suga. This also goes against the convention of the LDP, where party members used to decide their votes after listening to the policy debates of the candidates. This puts other contenders at a disadvantage. By September 3, factions representing 264 lawmakers had offered their support to Yoshihide Suga. Two factions with 36 lawmakers will support Shigeru Ishiba, whereas the 47-member Koga faction, to which Kishida belongs, is throwing its weight behind the former foreign minister. There are 47 members unaffiliated with any faction, including the frontrunner Suga. That means that even if all 47 LDP prefectural chapters vote against Suga and support either Ishiba or Kishida, they cannot change the fate of the presidential elections. Only a last-minute change of heart from the LDP lawmakers can change the balance, which is currently in favor of Suga. But this scenario is very unlikely given the fact that LDP lawmakers seldom go against the wish of their faction.
Since the major factions have supported Suga, it is a foregone conclusion that he will be elected as the party president on September 14 and will be nominated in the Diet on September 17, where the LDP enjoys an outright majority, to become the next Japanese prime minister. However, the 2020 LDP presidential elections will be remembered for denying a level playing field to all candidates and tweaking the election method to provide undue advantage to a certain candidate over the others. It will also be remembered for not conceding to the request of its own Diet members to hold full-fledged primaries. The question of the legitimacy of newly elected president will continue to linger. This does not augur well for intra-party democracy in the LDP.
Suga is hinting that he does not want to remain an “interim” prime minister, which many read as his intention to call for a snap general election before the term of the present lower house expires next year. But that may prove to be a gamble for the LDP as well as Suga, since the party would be faced with a new and stronger opposition party, which will come into existence with the merger of Constitutional Democratic Party and Democratic Party for the People. Combined, those two parties already have 106 members in the lower house of the Diet. Even though the factionless Suga will sail through in the presidential election, gaining wider sympathy from the public and grassroots party worker will remain a hurdle for him.
Shamshad A. Khan holds a Ph.D. in Japanese Studies and is assistant professor at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, BITS Pilani, Dubai Campus. He is also a visiting associate fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi.