The 2021 LDP Leadership Election: A Primer

As candidates for leadership of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) officially began their campaigns on September 17, there is still much that is unpredictable but what is certain is that the outcome will determine the future of Japanese politics for years to come.

Candidates for leadership of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) officially began their campaigns on September 17. The LDP currently controls government, and incumbent LDP president and current prime minister Suga Yoshihide plans to step down and make for the winner in an early October extraordinary session of parliament. The stakes are particularly high for the party and the winner this year. The next prime minister will face the public in an election for the House of Representatives in late-October/early November that the LDP is well-positioned to win. With COVID-19 recovery—both economic and medical—likely to accelerate in the new year, any incoming prime minister may also be poised to do well in the 2022 House of Councilors election. He or she will have two years left in their term as party president and three years before they must face the electorate again—plenty of time to implement their policy agenda and even remake the party. Given the stakes, Machiavellian machinations have already come to the surface and the outcome remains unpredictable. The race could yet throw up further surprises, but what is certain is that it will determine the future of Japanese politics for years to come.

Who is Running?

Four candidates successfully collected the signed endorsements of 20 or more parliamentarians required to enter the race. Even before Suga announced that he would not run for the LDP leadership again—effectively resigning as prime minister—two members of the LDP had already made clear their intention to challenge the prime minister. The first person to decisively throw their hat into the ring was Kishida Fumio, Kōchikai faction head and former minister of foreign affairs, followed soon by Takaichi Sanae, former minister of internal affairs and communications. Both were undeterred by Suga’s effective resignation and reconfirmed their commitment to become LDP president and prime minister. They have since been joined by Kōno Tarō, current minister for administrative and regulatory reform and minister responsible for the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, and a former minister of both defense and foreign affairs, and Noda Seiko, another former minister of internal affairs and communications.

How Will the Contest be Conducted?

Campaigning, which began officially on September 17, would normally involve the candidates going to the regions to engage party members and the public, but the LDP has announced that campaigning and debates between the candidates will take place online due to COVID-19. LDP HQ announced that anyone 20 years and older who has paid at least their 2020 annual membership subscription will be eligible to participate, relaxing the previous two-year subscription rule.

There are currently 1.13 million LDP members eligible to vote. Their votes must arrive at the LDP regional chapter offices by September 28. The regional chapters will send their chapter’s vote totals to LDP HQ by September 29, and the 383 “Party Member Votes” (総党員算定票)—50 percent of the contests’ 766 overall votes—will be apportioned on a national basis using the using the D’Hondt method. This differs from both last year’s race and Abe’s 2012 election, when these votes were apportioned on a chapter-by-chapter basis (地方票) rather than a national individual member basis. Turnout in the last full party election in 2018 was 61.4 percent, with around 640,000 members casting votes.

On September 29, the 383 individual LDP parliamentarians in both chambers of the national legislature will add their votes (議員票) to the Party Member Votes (総党票). If no candidate achieves a majority of 383 (out of 766) votes in this first round, a run-off will be held between the top two vote-getting candidates. Only the 383 parliamentarians and 47 prefectural chapter representatives (都道府県連) will vote in the second round (430 votes).

What is the Likely Outcome of Party Member Voting?

Up until the end of August, there appeared to be an upper and lower tier of public popularity for the next LDP president/prime minister (Figure 1). In the upper tier sat Kōno, former prime minister Abe Shinzō, current Minister of the Environment Koizumi Shinjirō, and Ishiba Shigeru, former secretary general and minister of defence. Koizumi ruled himself out by declaring his support first for Suga, and then Kōno, Ishiba decided not to run after four consecutive defeats in past leadership contests, and Abe, despite rumors, chose to sit out this time.

In the second tier, Suga, Kishida, and Noda, all registered less than double digit support in most polls while Takaichi did not even feature in these surveys until August. Figure 2 shows Kishida managing to break out of tier two more decisively than Takaichi and Noda, starting with the Mainichi Shimbun survey immediately after confirmation that the race would take place on September 29 and clearly putting himself in the conversation alongside Kōno, who has gained the backing of Koizumi and Ishiba (Figure 3). Takaichi has nevertheless seen moderate improvement, while Noda’s late entry means she has not gained much attention in public polling.

Looking at LDP supporter preferences only, we see a pattern where, unlike Koizumi, Ishiba, and Noda, Kōno is more popular among LDP supporters than he is with the general public (Figure 4). Kishida and Takaichi also extend their support when looking only at self-identified LDP supporters.

What about public opinion?

Given that voting is restricted to LDP membership, an important question is whether public opinion matters at all in the race, whether from rank-and-file LDP supporters or the general public. Only a little over 1 million paid LDP party members are even eligible to vote out of an electorate of over 100 million national voters or the 26,500,000 voters who selected the LDP candidate in single member districts in 2017. However, party members do care about their parties’ electoral prospects, taking into consideration their own preferences, signals from the parliamentary factions, as well as the candidates’ likelihood of success in any upcoming general election. Party members’ preferences as expressed in voting for LDP president have only differed from public preferences in degree rather than outcome since the start of this millennium.

For example, in 2012, Yomiuri’s polling showed Ishiba having a decisive edge over Abe in public polling and amongst LDP members. Ishiba eventually took 165 of the regional chapter votes (地方票) compared to Abe’s 87. These votes were apportioned on the basis of party member votes at the local level. In 2018, Abe won the 224 out of 405 Party Member Votes (党員票) based on receiving 55.3 percent of individual party member votes nationally, while Ishiba took 44.7 percent. In the head-to-head polling, Yomiuri Shimbun, JNN-TBS, and ANN polling all showed Abe with a moderate lead amongst public opinion over Ishiba. In 2020, Yomiuri and TBS then showed Suga besting Ishiba by between 13 and 21 percentage points, with Kishida even further back. Suga ended up collecting 89 out of 141 regional chapter votes (地方票) apportioned on a chapter-by-chapter basis, compared to Ishiba’s 42 and Kishida’s 10.

What about the LDP’s internal factions?

In direct contrast with 2020, where the factions decisively moved behind Suga, the factional situation this year is extremely fluid and volatile. While public popularity it is not necessarily the decisive factor determining party member or parliamentarian voting patterns, the ability to not cost the party seats by turning regular voters off or bringing floating voters to the polls certainly plays into considerations. Because of the turnover in LDP parliamentarians due to the party’s devastating loss in 2009 and triumphant return under Abe Shinzō in 2012, around 45 percent of House of Representatives LDP lawmakers have three terms or less to their name. They lack the solid electoral base many senior leaders possess and consider themselves electorally vulnerable to swings in national public opinion. Furthermore, while subscribed LDP party members can generally be counted on to vote for the LDP candidate, a solid electoral majority and the careers of vulnerable MPs depends on soft supporters or independents voting for the LDP in single member districts. As a general election must be held by November 28 this year, this imperative becomes all the more pressing.

A good example of this is the trouble that the most powerful person in the LDP, Abe Shinzō, is having exerting control over his faction, the 96-member Hosoda faction. Over 55 percent of the Hosoda faction members have been elected only three times or less. One notable member, Fukuda Tatsuo (son and grandson of former prime ministers), pushed back against his own faction’s leadership when they wanted to first back Suga, and is doing so again after Abe personally backed Takaichi. Over the last month, Fukuda has reached out to vulnerable lawmakers in other factions and grown a “anti-faction” faction starting from 15 members to now featuring at least 70 members. The Party Renewal Association (党風一新の会) has positioned itself not only as a forum for changing how LDP selects its leadership but states it wants lead debates on Japan’s post-COVID-19 social, economic and global challenges.

Other factional bosses also had trouble coming behind Suga before his resignation and are still struggling to come to a consensus. Nikai Toshihiro (47 members), party don and Suga’s political “birth parent,” was even criticized by his own faction for backing Suga and has been more circumspect by not endorsing a candidate. Neither the Asō faction (53 members) nor the Takeshita faction (52 members) could come to an agreed stance despite their leaders’ intention to back Suga and have “freed” their faction members to vote as they wish. This leaves Ishihara Nobuteru (10 members), former LDP President Tanigaki Sadakazu’s 17-member ‘group’, Ishiba’s 16-member faction, and 48 explicitly non-committed (無派閥) LDP members to vie for.  

Kōno meanwhile has the backing of Koizumi and Suga, two of the most prominent politicians from Kōno’s home prefecture of Kanagawa (like the author). They established good working relations and were reluctant to run against each other, which is why Koizumi initially backed Suga and Kōno demurred on entering the race until after Suga said he would not run. Ishiba has also indicated his support for Kono’s leadership. However, Koizumi and Suga are faction-less, while Ishiba has only the loosest influence on his own 16-member faction after being himself factionless for years. Kōno does have a faction of his own (Asō faction), but Kōno is not universally liked by his own faction, with many backing Kishida, and is actively trying to collect signatures of members trying to break out of the factional strangleholds or are faction-less. At this point, we can only be sure that Kishida’s faction (46 members/votes) will decisively back Kishida. A recent Yomiuri Shimbun survey suggested that around 40 percent of LDP lawmakers either have not decided or were unwilling to say who they supported. Of the 60 percent willing or able to say, there is currently a reasonably even distribution between Kōno, Kishida, and Takaichi.

With four candidates in the running, an even spread of lawmaker support for the candidates greatly enhances the probability of a run-off unless one candidate truly dominates the party member vote. It is quite possible that someone who placed a distant second in round one could prevail in the run-off. In 2012 that is precisely what happened when Abe went on to defeat the top vote getter in round one—the first time that had happened since 1956. Nothing can be taken for granted in a race that will have a major impact on the LDP, the next general election, and for the entire country.

Assistant Professor at Kanagawa University | + posts

Dr. Corey Wallace is associate professor in the Faculty of Foreign Languages, Kanagawa University, Yokohama. He was formerly the Einstein postdoctoral fellow at the Graduate School of East Asian Studies at Freie Universität Berlin from 2015-2019. He holds a master’s degree from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand as well as a PhD from the University of Auckland. Corey was also an adviser in the innovation system policy team of the New Zealand Ministry of Research, Science and Technology from 2007-2010

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