Koizumi’s Middlegame

Shinjiro Koizumi Black and White

Shinjirō Koizumi is the LDP’s most popular politician – but the charismatic young lawmaker still faces a challenging path to the Prime Minister’s office.

Prime Minister Shinzō Abe won re-election for an historic third term as LDP leader recently – but it is Shinjirō Koizumi who is by far his party’s most popular politician. As such, Koizumi came under intense scrutiny during the leadership election; would he support Abe, the status quo powerhouse, or Shigeru Ishiba, the pro-reform challenger? Koizumi kept silent right up to the day of the election, when he disclosed his support for Ishiba– a move carefully timed to establish himself as a reformer without either harming Abe’s campaign or tying his own political trajectory to Ishiba. With this move, Koizumi has transitioned from his measured opening strategies to what will necessarily be a more deliberate middlegame as he moves towards what many commentators consider to be his destiny – the Prime Minister’s office.

 The Player

Shinjirō Koizumi has been groomed for politics from an early age. His place in the Diet was preordained, as his father is the ever popular Junichirō Koizumi (Prime Minister from 2001-2006) and grandfather was lifelong Diet member Junya Koizumi. Unlike many dynastic politicians, Koizumi went to school in his home prefecture, a fact that Kanagawa constituents fondly remember. From there, he pursued graduate education at Columbia University and followed up with a research position at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. He then served as a private secretary to his father in the Diet for two years until it was his turn to take over.

This trajectory did three things to prepare Koizumi for political life. The personal connection to his home constituency secured his seat in Kanagawa’s 11th district, where the Koizumi family are hometown heroes. His time spent in the United States helped Koizumi form connections and begin cultivating an international reputation. Finally, his two years as a private secretary to his father allowed him to gain an insider’s understanding of the party, the Diet, and their machinations before it was his time to make his opening moves.

The Game Board

No matter how well groomed for the role he may have been, Koizumi must master a complex political game to achieve his goals. It is not simply about winning the leadership and becoming Prime Minister, it is about getting there with enough power to affect the changes he desires. To change the party, he must win under the current set of rules – rules that are shaped by power and precedent.

Veteran political scholar Tomohito Shinoda outlines six sources of power for a Japanese Prime Minister: their power base within the party, ties with the bureaucracy, ties with opposition parties, personal popularity and public relations, support from the business community, and their international reputation (especially with Japan’s sole ally, the United States). Any lawmaker aspiring to become an effective Prime Minister must build up power in as many of those categories as possible. Failure to do so leads to impotency in the position and the likelihood of a quick exit.

Among these, the most important is the hopeful Prime Minister’s base within the party. A Prime Minister in Japan must hold a “majority of a majority”; that is, the party must hold the majority of the seats in the Diet and the Prime Minister must hold the majority of support from party members. As the most recent LDP election showed, factional support is still a critical factor – a hopeful PM must form allegiances with faction heads and find a way to secure enough support not only to win the presidential election, but to prevent challengers from disrupting his/her tenure in the premiership.

As for precedent, the conventional LDP roadmap to the Kantei would suggest that Koizumi still faces major challenges. To date, all LDP prime ministers have been elected more than six times, and they have all served in minister and/or party leadership positions.  Further, there has neverbeen an LDP Prime Minister that was not affiliated with a faction. The accumulation of career milestones, coalescence of support, and other politicking required to make it to LDP presidency means that the average age of LDP prime ministers at inauguration is 63.8 years old. Koizumi is 37, with only four electoral victories under his belt and no cabinet postings higher than parliamentary vice-minister (two levels below Cabinet minister). He is also a staunchly anti-faction independent, and at the moment, independents account for less than twenty percent of LDP parliamentarians (Abe’s Hosoda Faction alone commands 23%). With precedent weighing against him on several fronts despite his inherent advantages, Koizumi’s strategies have had to be adjusted from the outset.

The Opening

Shinjirō Koizumi entered the Diet from a position of strength when the LDP was at its weakest: the 2009 Lower House election, when the LDP lost an election outright for the first time, leading to the Democratic Party of Japan forming a government. Koizumi’s entry into the LDP at this moment gave the party’s reconstruction effort a champion – albeit one that many LDP politicians were not yet ready to embrace. With his father’s divisive reputation and his own focus on reform, the younger Koizumi entered the LDP knowing that for every ally there would be as many enemies in the ranks.  As such, he has played a measured game since joining the political fray. Koizumi’s opening strategy has consisted of four key features.

First, Koizumi has recognized his own shortcomings. He has made no overtures towards the party presidency, despite calls for him to do so; even when some have suggested he receive a full cabinet ministerial posting, he has avoided those appointments. In doing so, he has stayed grounded among peers and avoided drawing ire for preferential treatment. He is playing a longer game, taking time to build up the other sources of power that are critical for prime ministers.

Koizumi has walked a careful line, and his position is largely untouchable

Second, he has balanced criticism of the party with fulfilment of important roles that support the LDP. Koizumi often stands apart from the party, whether it is through criticism or going his own way on certain LDP decisions – but he also steps up for the party in ways that make him indispensable. For example, he traveled to Okinawa to advocate for LDP-backed candidates in the highly contested Nago Mayoral and Okinawa gubernatorial elections. Koizumi’s popularity and resulting value to the party gives him a longer leash than any other junior parliamentarian.

Third, despite being willing to criticize the administration when he sees fit, he has carefully walked a line that avoids any action that would degrade the government’s legislative agenda or public standing. As such, his position is largely untouchable; not only does he still provide net gains for the party, but any retaliation for his criticisms only plays into Koizumi’s narrative of antiquated LDP politics.

Fourth, Koizumi has focused on younger politicians. Rather than politicking with faction heads up to forty years his senior, Koizumi has focused his efforts on the next generation of LDP leadership. He headed the LDP’s influential Seinen Kyoku (“Youth Division”)and formed the popular “Team 11” following the March 2011 triple disaster. Additionally, he has not used his popularity to leapfrog any peers or immediate seniors to preferred postings.

In sum, Koizumi has sacrificed short-term gains in his opening moves in favor of the long game. This strategy does not yield him much power now, but Koizumi is cultivating relationships and shaping the next generation. As older LDP parliamentarians retire, the door will open for Koizumi to use his charismatic leadership and strong personal connections to deliver him to the party presidency with enough power to make the sort of changes he desires.

The Middlegame

The 2018 LDP presidential election marks Koizumi’s move to the next phase of play. Koizumi had four choices. He could have announced his support for Abe – a cautious, pragmatic move meant to prevent being marginalized by the inevitable victor. He could have announced his support for Ishiba – which would not have been enough to have handed Ishiba the victory but might have degraded Abe’s political capital. He could also simply have repeated what he did in 2012, remained silent; a sign of weak protest to the current administration, but also a major concession to Abe and old guard LDP politics.

The fourth choice, the move he made, was deftly handled. He disclosed that he was voting for Shigeru Ishiba on the day of the presidential election – a direct protest to Abe-led LDP politics that neither harmed election results nor tied Koizumi to Ishiba’s campaign. Koizumi registered a public protest against the current regime in a way that still keeps him relatively untouchable.  If Abe retaliates, he plays into Koizumi’s narrative. If Abe instead offers cabinet or party leadership appointments in an attempt to co-opt him, Koizumi gains the power to say yes or no. By standing apart from Abe without having to stump for Ishiba, Koizumi was able to come through this election as an independent force in the party.

To have a shot at premiership, Koizumi must build allegiances with factions and local chapters alike

This move was unlike any that Koizumi made in his first three terms and represents a transition to more deliberate posturing. Koizumi commands strong, consistent popularity and has a great reputation among foreign government circles, so his next focus will be on three other activities:cabinet postings; building allegiances in the Diet; and coalescing support at the local level. Cabinet postings are important not just for padding portfolios, but for building ties with the bureaucracy. Koizumi will aim for appointments that do not force him to be co-opted into an Abe agenda with which he disagrees.

Koizumi must also look to build his power base within the party. To have a realistic shot at premiership, Koizumi is going to have to build allegiances with faction heads or entice faction members to defect. Neither will be easy given current factional trends in the LDP; Koizumi will have to focus on individual relationships that can be employed at the right time in the future. Meanwhile, Koizumi must cultivate relationships with local LDP politicians. Local chapters of the LDP command as many votes in leadership elections as Diet members do, which increases the importance of appealing to rank-and-file voters. Koizumi can foster those relationships in a number of ways, but the most important will be leaving Nagatacho visit local LDP chapters, stump for party candidates in municipal and prefectural elections, and advocate for policies that benefit communities outside of the Kantō plain.

Koizumi’s opening strategies established him in the LDP while still maintaining his independence. His outspoken presence has built his stature in the public eye as the future champion for the LDP, while carefully keeping him beyond reproach. Now, Koizumi will focus on coalescing a broader power base and posturing for the eventual challenge to the old guard LDP.  Barring a political shock, this will be a years-long effort, but only by playing a measured strategy will Koizumi be able to win the game in a way that enables him to change its rules.

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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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