- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced on Friday, 28 August that he would step down as prime minister and leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), effective as soon as the party selects a successor.
- The LDP will decide in the coming days over when and how it will select a new leader and prime minister; the format could favor insider candidates.
- Abe’s successor will be a caretaker, serving out the remaining year of his term as LDP leader, but will face a particularly challenging policy agenda.
Abe’s resignation follows weeks of uncertainty about his health, as rumors surfaced that he was struggling with another episode of his chronic ulcerative colitis or perhaps something more severe – rumors that were seemingly verified after he visited a hospital twice in eight days earlier this month.
The most immediate question is when and how the LDP chooses its next leader. The early reports suggest that the party feels a particularly strong sense of urgency amidst the Covid-19 pandemic and the recession and could therefore opt for a quick, closed election. The LDP’s rules allow its executives to suspend the requirement for a public election in “urgent times,” which enable the party to move faster to choose a leader and give party leaders – and the party’s factions – more influence over the outcome. Whereas in an ordinary election, the party’s prefectural chapters would control the same number of votes as the party’s lawmakers and would award those votes proportionally based on the result of a vote among dues-paying party supporters, an emergency vote would give each lawmaker a vote and limit the prefectural vote to three votes per prefectural chapter. In this case, lawmakers would control roughly three-quarters of the vote. The LDP’s executive council will likely render its decision at a meeting on Tuesday, 1 September.
However, it is unclear what the public reaction will be to a closed vote. While the extraordinary circumstances could lead the public to favor a faster transition over a more transparent process, the next prime minister would have a limited mandate and could be vulnerable to criticism from within the party, particularly if he makes policy missteps or otherwise dents the party’s reputation considering that a general election must be held by October 2021.
Sea of troubles
Any caretaker faces a challenging agenda. Abe’s replacement will, of course, have to manage the pandemic – including the rollout of a pandemic, which Abe pledged to deliver to the entire country by the first half of 2021 – and its economic consequences. But the next prime minister will also have to manage an in-progress debate over Japan’s national security, as the Abe administration was planning to update its national security strategy and the national defense program guidelines after it decided to suspend the deployment of the Aegis Ashore missile defense system purchased from the US. The next prime minister will also take over with Japan’s relationship with South Korea at low ebb – and the possibility that it could worsen once South Korea’s Daegu district court moves to liquidate assets seized from Nippon Steel – and in the midst of a potentially wide-reaching recalibration of Japan’s relationship with China. Finally, the next prime minister will have to manage Japan’s response to a US presidential election that could have profound consequences for the US-Japan security relationship, since the two candidates are offering clashing visions for US alliances. The consequences of the election will be felt immediately in Japan, since Washington and Tokyo are due to begin negotiating the terms of Japanese contributions to hosting US forces over the coming months.
The key players to watch as the LDP debates the selection of its next leader are Abe, whose faction is the LDP’s largest; Finance Minister Taro Aso, whose faction is the second largest and who is widely believed to want another chance at the premiership after his own stint in 2008-2009 ended in a historic electoral defeat; and LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, whose own faction is relatively small but has dense relationships across the party. When asked whether he favored anyone in the succession fight, Abe demurred, though there have been reports that he favors Aso’s candidacy.
Aso, however, could be a controversial choice given his age, his tendency to make embarrassing gaffes, and his right-wing views. LDP backbenchers could be reluctant to support a leader who could be a liability during an election campaign. If, however, the LDP opts for a short, closed campaign, it may be difficult for an outsider candidate to emerge who can stop Aso, particularly if he has Abe’s backing.
A closed format, in which LDP rank-and-file supporters would not have a say, would disadvantage Shigeru Ishiba, who is the most popular choice for the next prime minister among the party’s supporters but has struggled to attract the support of his fellow LDP lawmakers. Fumio Kishida, a moderate former foreign minister believed to have been Abe’s favorite to succeed him, has neither a strong public following or strong support among the party’s lawmakers. Taro Kono, the maverick defense minister, has emerged as an increasingly popular choice and belongs to Aso’s faction, but may not be able to make his case in the short time before the party votes. That leaves Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga as the most likely “stop Aso” candidate. As the critical decision maker for Abe’s entire tenure, Suga will be fully prepared to step in as a policymaker, although he does not necessarily enjoy broad support among the party’s rank-and-file or the electorate at large. He also could be disadvantaged in the race since he does not belong to a faction and would therefore have to pull together a diverse coalition from across the party’s factions. However, he has drawn close to Nikai, and the two have deep relationships across the party that could help Suga assemble a winning coalition.
Regardless of who wins, the LDP will have another leadership election in September 2021. As a result, party leaders will likely strive to prevent open conflict over the coming weeks and coalesce around a successor who can navigate through next year’s challenges. Then, the party would have an election next year in which it would have a more open debate about its post-Abe future and choose the best possible standard bearer to lead the party in the general election.