Who Will Lead Japan after September?

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Japan has no national elections scheduled in 2018, but there is one highly consequential vote on the calendar – the LDP’s internal election for the office of party president, which will be held in September and will in effect choose Japan’s next prime minister. Until last week, this was expected to be a straightforward coronation process for Shinzo Abe, granting him a historic third term that would keep him in office up to and beyond the Tokyo Olympics in 2020; in fact, the LDP’s internal rules on presidential term limits were changed last year precisely to allow Abe to remain in power for an extra term.

The chances of Abe winning reelection in September now look far less certain. There’s even a possibility that he will stand down rather than face the humiliation of defeat. The scandal surrounding Moritomo Gakuen’s suspicious land deal and the subsequent cover-up has not, as some in Abe’s inner circle might have vainly hoped, been confined to the Nagatacho bubble; technical and complex though the details of the latest episode in the scandal may be, it has resonated with the general public, perhaps through confirming long-held suspicions about Moritomo Gakuen and about Abe more generally. A set of opinion polls conducted as the scandal was developing over the weekend of March 10 and 11 suggested that the public was already turning against Abe and his cabinet over the issue1See Tobias Harris’ in-depth round-up for Sasakawa USA’s Japan Political Pulse for more detail; his Twitter account also details more recent developments in the polls..

Even the best-case scenario polls show Abe’s support to be in a deep hole

More recent opinion polls confirm that this was only the start of the decline; the Asahi Shimbun, Mainichi Shimbun, and Kyodo Press all conducted polls on the weekend of March 17 and 18 showing support rates swinging hard against Abe’s government. The Mainichi Shimbun poll2Mainichi Shimbun, 2018-03-18, 「内閣支持率33% 12ポイント減」 had support falling to 33 percent with a combined swing (the fall in support plus the increase in non-support) of -27 percent, while the Asahi poll3Asahi Shimbun, 2018-03-18, 「内閣支持率31%、第二次政権以降で最低 朝日世論調査」 showed support down even further, at 31 percent, though a slightly smaller combined swing of -24 percent. The Kyodo figures4Kyodo News, 2018-03-18, 「内閣支持9ポイント急落、38%」 were a little less drastic, with support at 38.7 percent and a combined swing of -18.6 percent – but those figures are fairly dismal in themselves, so the fact that they’re the best-case scenario across all the polls shows just how deep a hole Abe’s support is in at the moment.

This isn’t just deep damage; the nature of the Moritomo Gakuen scandal means it’s also likely to be lasting damage. The government’s support figures will recover to some degree, even if it’s only a dead-cat bounce, but Abe’s public image will never lose this stain; whatever his actual involvement in the Moritomo land deal, much of the public will see the affair as confirmation that he is the kind of person who will break the rules to suit himself or his friends, then shamelessly break them again to cover his tracks. This is an impossible stain to wash out precisely because it’s the kind of crony LDP corruption that the Japanese public learned to hate over decades, and has even shown willingness to punish at the ballot box, albeit only in non-national elections thus far – witness Yuriko Koike’s thumping victories over the LDP in Tokyo’s gubernatorial and assembly elections, which were largely achieved on a rather nonspecific platform of weeding out LDP corruption.

A large majority of the public blame Abe for the Moritomo scandal

If and when the LDP once again loses a national election, it will likely come about through a surge in public anger over corruption; the LDP’s lawmakers know this, and that’s precisely what makes it so dangerous for the party to leave the Moritomo Gakuen scandal unchecked and unpunished. Moreover, the public is pretty clear on who is to blame; Finance Minister Taro Aso’s attempts to push blame onto recently resigned bureaucrat Norihisa Sagawa are judged unacceptable by 75 to 76 percent of voters in the Asahi and Mainichi polls. A little over 50 percent say Aso himself must resign; but a significant majority say the responsibility lies with Abe, with 82 percent saying the PM has “some” or “most” responsibility for the scandal in the Asahi poll, and 68 percent saying he bears responsibility in the Mainichi poll. In other words, even if Aso does resign (which he almost surely won’t), it’s far from guaranteed to take the heat off the Prime Minister.

If Abe’s leadership is on the rocks, the next logical question becomes: who might step up to take his place come September? Who will be the next prime minister of Japan? A couple of the recent polls have asked some early questions about that issue, too; notably, the Asahi Shimbun poll asked who respondents preferred as the next LDP president. 24 percent said Abe, while 22 percent said Shigeru Ishiba; the other options on the poll were former Minister for Foreign Affairs Fumio Kishida (7 percent) and current Minister for Internal Affairs Seiko Noda (5 percent). “None of the Above” outweighed any individual candidate, with 35 percent. TV news service Nippon News Network also asked this question in a poll last week; they had Abe at 14.1 percent (down from 22.9 percent in their previous poll), trailing Ishiba on 24 percent and Shinjiro Koizumi on 21.2 percent.

These polls need to be taken with a large grain of salt, not least because the LDP’s presidential election is not a public one, so a poll which includes non-LDP members isn’t going to be very reflective of how currents are flowing within the party. Notably, the Mainchi poll reported that while only 29 percent of the public overall think Abe should continue as president beyond September, that figure rises to 58 percent among self-identified LDP supporters – a major drop from 70 percent in the previous month’s poll, but still a clear indicator that core LDP voters are a long way from turning their backs on Abe entirely.

Given all of this, who are the realistic contenders for the leadership in September?

Shinzo Abe

Abe is stubborn, but not foolish. There’s a good chance that he will recognize that bowing out gracefully and not contesting September’s election is a far better exit than being a lame duck prime minister with diminished authority and no political capital to achieve anything major for a miserable final term. However, if he chooses to run again, he will be a strong contender despite being mired in scandal; his authority in the party could well dissuade strong candidates from standing against him, leaving him to face only outsiders such as Shigeru Ishiba and Seiko Noda. A tougher scenario for Abe is one in which he chooses to run again, but loses the support of factions beyond his own; talk that the recent leadership change in the Takeshita (formerly Nukaga) Faction could mean it will back Ishiba is inconsequential if Abe maintains the rest of his factional alliance, but becomes interesting if, for example, the Aso Faction peels off to back someone else. Even in this situation one wouldn’t bet against the current PM, but the calculus does become decidedly more complex.

Shigeru Ishiba

Ishiba is a perennial Abe rival at leadership election time and has essentially been waging a shadow campaign for the leadership for the past decade, even forming his own LDP faction precisely in order to further his leadership ambitions. This is important context to his seemingly strong showings in the Asahi and NNN leadership polls; Ishiba is the only person in the LDP who’s been actively campaigning for the leadership, which means that only being able to pick up low-twenties support figures in the wake of one of the most damaging scandals a prime minister has faced this side of the millennium shows pretty hard limits on his appeal. Indeed, Ishiba’s seemingly unshakable belief that he’s destined to lead the LDP is pretty hard to understand; he’s not notably popular with voters, and is drastically unpopular with his fellow lawmakers. If his campaign to replace Abe seems to be gathering steam, support will likely coalesce around an “anyone-but-Ishiba” candidate who can see off his challenge. The best-case scenario for Ishiba might actually be if Abe is headstrong enough to run again; he would still be the underdog in a straight contest with the PM, but might hope to win over lawmakers who think any change at all is better than limping on with a leader who can’t shake off scandal.

Fumio Kishida

The long-serving Minister for Foreign Affairs left the Cabinet at the last reshuffle to head up the LDP’s Policy Research Council – a move thought to be a prelude for a run at the party presidency. The expectation was that Kishida would put his ambitions on ice for a few years in return for Abe’s eventual backing as his anointed successor. This calculus has changed somewhat, and Kishida will need to put some water between himself and Abe in order to avoid being seen as too much of the same – but the PM’s backing remains hugely valuable in an intraparty contest, and if Abe does decide not to run for reelection but tacitly backs Kishida instead, he would be a strong favorite to win. Kishida commands his own fairly sizable faction, and the electoral math is clear – the Kishida, Abe (Hosoda) and Aso’s factions between them control precisely 50 percent + 1 of the parliamentary party votes (204 of 407 lawmakers), so if they align in their preferences (and maintain intrafaction discipline), they’ll likely get to elect the next leader.

Seiko Noda

Another perennial Abe challenger, Seiko Noda has never really seemed entirely committed to the notion of being leader; her challenges in leadership contests were carefully couched in terms of a sense that there ought to be someone standing against Abe in order to maintain the party’s democratic values. Noda hasn’t been a member of a party faction since the early 2000s, which has hurt her chances in the past – in 2015, she couldn’t amass the 20 required nominations to run against Abe – but there’s a small chance this could favor her in the current climate by allowing her to run on her “outsider” credentials (despite a senior position in Abe’s cabinet). Nonetheless, it’s extremely unlikely that she has the recognition or support base to mount a serious challenge.

Taro Kono

The cosmopolitan, foreign-educated scion of one of Japan’s great political dynasties, current Minister for Foreign Affairs Kono’s internationalist bent and pragmatic mix of conservative and liberal policies makes him very popular with the overseas media5See for example: Motoko Rich, New York Times, 2018-02-17, “In Japan, a Liberal Maverick is Seeking to Lead a Conservative Party”. However, there’s little to suggest that he has a support base within the LDP that could catapult him into the leadership. As a member of the Aso Faction, he would first need his faction leadership to back his bid, which seems unlikely – unless, of course, the current scandal has driven enough of a wedge between Abe and Aso as to prevent the latter from wanting to cooperate with Abe’s succession plans. Even in that case, though, Kono would need a lot of pieces to fall into place in order to allow him to become the de facto “anyone but Ishiba” candidate – and he may prefer to keep his head down and his powder dry in anticipation of a more calculated push for the leadership in a few years’ time.

Shinjiro Koizumi

Shinjiro Koizumi is far and away the LDP’s most popular politician – and there isn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that he’ll try to capitalize on that with a run for the leadership right now. Time is on his side; Koizumi is 36 years old, and has plenty of time to build his support base and his national profile before taking aim at the leadership. He has been careful to maintain a calculated distance from the Abe cabinet, taking on only junior roles and regularly criticizing the government (with the image of independence being assisted by his father, former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, attacking the government on its nuclear policy), while also working hard around the country during electoral campaigns, turning out to stump for candidates in gatherings often notably better-attended than those for senior cabinet ministers. Not running for the office won’t stop Koizumi from having an influence on the race, however; unaligned with any faction, he’s free to support any candidate in the race, and his backing will be a valuable tool for whoever receives it.

None of the above?

The Asahi poll made it clear that right now, “None of the Above” is winning the race for the LDP leadership – so could a dark horse candidate emerge and lead the pack? The structure of the LDP makes that pretty unlikely. Traditionally, faction leaders (or a senior faction member approved by the leader) were the main candidates for leadership – but aside from Kishida and Ishiba, it’s unlikely any of them would run for the office. Taro Aso was prime minister once before and seems unlikely to wish to repeat the experience. The heads of the Hosoda, Takeshita (formerly Nukaga), and Nikai factions are in their seventies and unlikely to harbor ambitions of leadership (or the support required for a serious challenge), while among the senior members of their faction, none have been reported to be feeling out the possibility of a challenge. Absent a real surprise candidate, the field is likely to be limited to those listed above – and of those, only Abe himself, Kishida and (at the very, very outside of the field) Ishiba seem to have a real chance in the contest for now.


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