Foreign Affairs: Japan’s upcoming political succession, explained

After an unpopular one-year tenure, Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide of Japan announced that he would not contest the upcoming race to be president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Why did Suga step down? What happens next? 

Here’s a quick primer on the state of Japanese politics.

Why is Suga stepping down?

Suga was preparing to fight for re-election as party leader this month. He had started his tenure with strong approval ratings, but they quickly slumped as the prime minister struggled with managing the coronavirus pandemic. His hopes to boost his popularity by successfully hosting the Tokyo Olympics — the hosting of which was opposed by many Japanese, according to public polling — were quickly dashed as infection figures shot up. Suga, who was more proficient at backroom politics and bureaucratic clashes than public communication, proved to be an uncharismatic frontman who led his party to disappointing results in multiple local races. With a general election also due this year, Suga’s slumping approval ratings — plunging below 30% — increasingly spooked LDP members fearful of losing their seats.

Suga’s power base within his own party was never entirely secure. The LDP is split into multiple factions: the largest is the Hosoda faction, to which former prime minister Abe Shinzo belongs, followed by the faction headed by the powerful deputy prime minister, Aso Taro. Suga had belonged to none. He captured the premiership with ease last year when the factions favored him as the consensus caretaker candidate who would continue the Abe administration’s policies. Now, it appears that Suga lost the backing of younger members who feared electoral backlash, while party elders such as Abe and Aso withheld support. Suga’s attempt to refresh the party leadership were ultimately rebuffed, leading the increasingly cornered prime minister to call it quits.

What did Suga accomplish domestically as prime minister? 

A key Suga legacy lies in his focus on combating climate change, an area that his predecessor took scant interest in. He committed Japan to achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, along with a pledge to cut emissions by 46% by 2030. Suga also established a Digital Agency to accelerate the digitization of Japan’s government. 

Suga was able to limit economic damage during the pandemic with lighter restrictions, but those halfway measures meant he struggled with containing the coronavirus. Compared to the rest of the world, Japan has not fared too poorly with the pandemic, but ultimately Suga did not do well enough to save his own premiership. 

Who will be Japan’s next leader?

Several candidates are vying to replace Suga. One candidate is Kono Taro, who currently serves as the minister for administrative reform and the government’s vaccines tsar. He has served in several influential roles, including stints as defense minister and foreign minister in the Abe cabinet. Kono is generally viewed as a maverick willing to buck the party establishment, and as a reformer within a largely conservative party. A Georgetown alumnus, Kono speaks excellent English and tweets prolifically. His popularity with the public has allowed him to continually top public preference polls. He is consulting with the Aso faction, to which he belongs, on whether to run, but Suga has already signaled his endorsement.

Former foreign minister Kishida Fumio is another contender. Once viewed as a probable successor to Abe, Kishida’s star has dimmed, and he lost to Suga in last year’s leadership election. This time around, Kishida has come out swinging, promising a populist turn in governance with a huge COVID stimulus package and attempting to draw a clear contrast with Suga. However, Suga’s decision not to contest the race has opened the door for stronger candidates, making Kishida’s path to the premiership more difficult.

Takaichi Sanae, a former internal affairs minister, has declared her candidacy. A staunch nationalist and conservative, Takaichi is a proponent of revising Japan’s pacifist constitution. If she wins, she would become Japan’s first female prime ministe; indeed, she has a particular fondness for Margaret Thatcher. Although initially viewed as a long-shot contender who does not belong to any faction, Takaichi’s bid was boosted when she received Abe’s endorsement, which could help consolidate support behind her.

Former defense minister Ishiba Shigeru is also considering running in the race. Ishiba consistently polls well with the public and has run for the leadership several times. However, his animosity towards key leaders — he was one of the LDP’s most prominent Abe critics — has denied him sufficient internal support. Ishiba is known for his keen interest in military issues. Other possible candidates include former internal affairs minister Noda Seiko and former education minister Shimomura Hakubun.

The race is currently wide open, without the incumbent running. Both LDP parliamentarians and grassroots party members will have a say, and the LDP’s various factions are still largely undecided on who to back. Analysis from Nikkei Asia shows that party elders may soon come into friction with younger members, leading to a more fluid race where faction leaders can no longer deliver promised numbers for a candidate. 

What will be the impact on Japan’s foreign policy?

Regardless of which candidate wins, Japan’s government is likely to become more hostile in its stance vis-a-vis China. Under Suga, Japan made an explicit link between Japan and Taiwan’s security, and the Biden-Suga summit referred — for the first time in a US-Japan leaders’ statement since 1969 — to Taiwan. The LDP also recently held its first security talks with Taiwan’s ruling party, the Democratic Progressive Party. There is no indication that this trend will end with Suga’s departure. Leadership contender Kishida has signaled a more aggressive tone even though the faction he leads was known for its friendly ties to China, and the strongly conservative Takaichi’s elevation would certainly infuriate Beijing. 

Of note is the impending ousting of Nikai Toshihiro, the LDP’s longest-serving secretary-general and a key Suga supporter. Nikai is one of the most prominent advocates of friendship with China within the Japanese parliament, and played a key role as a bridge between Abe and Chinese president Xi Jinping. Now, however, Abe and Aso appear keen on finally pushing out Nikai; even Suga, when he was still planning to run for re-election, accepted that he would have to find a new secretary-general.

Will there be a change in government after this year’s general election?

This is unlikely. In the postwar era, the LDP has only lost power twice. The last time the opposition was in power, they presided over the ‘Triple Disaster’ of the Fukushima earthquake, tsunami and nuclear reactor meltdown, contributing to a lasting unpopularity from which they are yet to recover. With the unpopular Suga no longer leading the LDP into the election, the opposition faces an even tougher race. Should a popular figure like Kono become the face of the party, the LDP may be able to minimize its seat losses. Opposition parties such as the Constitution Democratic Party and the Japanese Communist Party are collaborating in multiple districts to to create a unified race against LDP candidates, but whether this will lead to significant gains remains to be seen.

A lack of party turnover does not mean Japanese politics is stable, however. Abe was the longest-serving prime minister in Japan’s history, but he was an exception; before he took the post, the country’s politics was characterized by a ‘revolving door’ of prime ministers who resigned after brief terms. Many wondered whether Abe’s resignation would lead to the return of this era, and Suga’s collapse after only a year does not bode well for the stability of Japanese politics.

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