LDP 2018 Preview: Party Leadership

The following is part two of our preview of the LDP’s political landscape in 2018. Today we look ahead to the LDP’s leadership election, planned for September:

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe enters 2018 with respectable public approval ratings (53 percent in the Yomiuri/41 percent in Asahi December polls), and the strength of Abe’s coalition support from some of the LDP’s strongest factions and prominent unattached politicians (like Yoshihide Suga) postures him well for the 2018 party presidential poll. Still, at least one intraparty opponent is waiting in the wings in LDP heavyweight Shigeru Ishiba, and others would be ready to strike if the opportunity presented itself. As the party postures for post-Abe leadership, the situation entering 2018 is an interesting one. As of right now, here are the top individuals who stand a chance to succeed Abe:

Fumio Kishida

Although many Japan observers place Kishida at the pole position for succeeding Abe, he has fallen back a few places since the August cabinet reshuffle. His faction gained a few prominent posts among the new cabinet appointments, but Kishida’s own standing fell despite a move he probably thought was going to help him in the long run. Kishida left the foreign minister post to chair the LDP’s Policy Research Council, making him the de facto number three in the party. In the past, this position has been an influential one, often allowing individuals to punch above their weight class in intraparty dealings. However, Kishida’s assumption of the post at this time is problematic for two reasons: one, Abe is notorious for ignoring the LDP’s Policy Research Council on matters of personal interest, namely his security agenda. Abe’s propensity to go around party mechanisms is something that the popular Shinjiro Koizumi has openly criticized in the media. Unfortunately for Kishida, this also puts him in a bind, because as the chairman, the party still expects him to advocate for any major policies coming out of the LDP even if he has little ability to influence the policy directly.

In sum, Kishida is not in the kingmaker position he was hoping to be in, and he has tied his own hands for being able to act as an outspoken critic of Abe’s policies. It will be difficult for him to posture himself as the anti-Abe candidate if the current prime minister’s stock starts to fall, and he is not in a position to take credit for Abe’s success as much as other players holding more prominent spots within the cabinet and party leadership. Now that his faction is only fourth largest, Kishida is going to have to make some clever political moves in 2018 to put himself back in a position to be the front runner for post-Abe leadership, especially if the current administration begins to falter.

Taro Kono

When Kono took over the foreign minister post last August, his predecessor Fumio Kishida had broken the record for longest tenure serving in that position. What could have been a rocky transition turned out to be seamless. In fact, Kono immediately impressed the public, foreign counterparts, and Japan observers with his poise and competence following an immediate test by North Korea in the form of a missile overflight of Japan. Interestingly, Kono was only a dark horse candidate for the position, as ministry officials themselves were convinced that long time Abe-ally Toshimitsu Motegi would assume the post up until the day before the cabinet reshuffle. But a power play was made and Kono found himself in the prominent cabinet position representing Japan’s foreign diplomatic efforts. He has not disappointed in that role.

Kono has clear aspirations for party leadership and will be able to leverage his success as foreign minister in the post-Abe LDP. Kono had an unsuccessful run for LDP presidency in 2009 but is well-positioned now to succeed for two reasons: First, his home Aso faction is now the second largest in the LDP following its merger with the Tanigaki faction. It is also aligned with the LDP’s more conservative (and numerically strong) factions – Hosoda, Nikai, and Nukaga – giving it an even stronger edge over potential opponents in a presidential race. Second, Kono has the unique position of straddling the fence between old guard LDP and party maverick. The son of former LDP heavyweight Yohei Kono, Taro Kono comes from a political lineage and has a firm grip on his prominent single member district seat in Kanagawa. Meanwhile, he is one of the most outspoken critics of the LDP’s traditional ways of doing business and was a close supporter of the last LDP maverick and public darling, Junichiro Koizumi. This dual identity as traditional politician and maverick allows Kono to remain in a good position to follow-on as the party head whether Abe stays in the public’s good graces or not.

Shigeru Ishiba

Ishiba has clearly established himself as the antithesis to Abe in the LDP. Openly criticizing many of the prime minister‘s policies, he has put all of his chips on the bet that Abe will falter either due to scandal or failed policy. This of course is a risky gamble considering the teflon nature of Abe’s popularity since 2012, but it was Ishiba’s only play. With only twenty members in his faction, he does not have the strength to overpower Abe allies like Aso and Nikai. Ishiba is actively trying to woo the Nukaga faction to his side, but the faction itself is divided between Abe and Ishiba supporters. Unless Abe falters due to renewed scandal, it is unlikely that the Nukaga faction will abandon its coalition with the Abe camp.

For all of the challenges ahead of him, Ishiba has two advantages. First is his popularity among the public. He is viewed as a suitable prime ministerial candidate, so if the LDP is looking for someone to fix its public image after a major failure in the current administration, Ishiba could be the person to do it. His other advantage is that he may still be able to command support from the numerous independents in the party seeking a departure from traditional LDP politics. Of course, all of this hinges on a major failure in the Abe administration.

Other Potential Successors

At the moment, there may be some other party presidential hopefuls, but no one else has emerged as a legitimate candidate. Current Minister of Internal Affairs Seiko Noda sought to challenge Abe in the 2015 party presidential race but could not muster enough support to earn a nomination. While that probably will not stop her from trying again in 2018, she is currently not a viable candidate. Meanwhile, Abe would probably like to handpick a successor, but the company he has kept has not been the best. His personal protégé Tomomi Inada was controversial and the source of a major dip in Abe’s approval rating because of her weakness as defense minister. Further, other members of his inner circle like Koichi Hagiuda have been tied to the two school scandals that plagued the Abe administration in 2017. As a result, Abe will have to look elsewhere in 2018 to start lining up a potential successor.

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Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special advisor 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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