- Ahead of a 1 September meeting to finalize a decision about how to select a replacement for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is closing ranks around Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.
- Suga is a capable politician, but if he wins he will have to overcome several challenges to his authority.
The shape of the race to succeed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has quickly taken shape ahead of a Tuesday, 1 September meeting of the LDP’s executive council that will formally determine when a vote will be held and how it will be conducted. As expected, party officials are prepared to invoke the urgency clause in the LDP’s rules to enable it to suspend the requirement for a public vote including dues-paying supporters and limit the vote to the party’s lawmakers and prefectural chapters. It is expected that candidates will have to file by 8 September, followed by a vote on 14 September and a Diet vote to choose the new prime minister on 17 September.
The push for a closed vote has accompanied a rapid shift by the LDP’s factions in favor of Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga. After serving as chief cabinet secretary for the entirety of the second Abe administration – a role that included not only serving as the government’s chief spokesman, but also manager of personnel affairs, coordinator for inter-ministerial policy issues, and a key member of a small decision-making group around Abe – Suga has the strongest case to make in terms of his ability to govern from day one. Given the most important task facing the next prime minister will be controlling the Covid-19 pandemic and promoting economic recovery, it is little surprise that party leaders are opting for the candidate who will be the most likely to provide administrative continuity for what would have been the last year of Abe’s term.
Neither of the two other candidates who have declared their intention to run – former foreign minister and LDP policy chief Fumio Kishida and former LDP secretary-general Shigeru Ishiba – can make as compelling a case to be ready for government. Kishida, once touted as Abe’s choice to be his successor, looks particularly weak; the party appears to have concluded that he would not be equal to the challenges of the coming year and his support may be limited to his own faction. Ishiba has more extensive governing experience and is also the most popular choice among the LDP’s rank-and-file members and the public at large. However, the closed format will make it all but impossible for Ishiba to pull off an upset, since he has made few inroads among LDP lawmakers, whose support he struggled to win during his 2012 and 2018 leadership bids.
Ishiba, a group of young LDP members led by Shinjiro Koizumi, and some prefectural chapters have pressed the LDP leadership, particularly Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, to make the vote open, but Nikai has insisted that it will be closed. Some prefectural chapters may decide how to cast their votes by having members cast mail-in ballots. The debate over how the vote should be conducted highlights one of the key challenges Suga would face if he takes office. Although he has been a highly visible member of the Abe administration, his support in opinion polls lags far behind Ishiba’s and until recently his role as a behind-the-scenes operator made him seem an unlikely successor for Abe. The perception that the LDP’s factions colluded to secure his selection will make it that much harder to build public support for his government. Suga could also have to contend with the perception that he will merely be a caretaker serving out the remainder of Abe’s term, which could lead ambitious would-be successors to spend the next year jockeying for position.
Therefore, assuming Suga is able to consolidate his support fully and win the leadership, he will have to work to ensure that the party remains united behind his premiership. His choice for key cabinet posts and the LDP’s leadership would be especially important, as he would have to determine how best to treat Ishiba and Kishida, his rival candidates; current Defense Minister Taro Kono, who has surged in popularity but decided not to run this year; and the party’s right wing, which has been unable to unite behind a candidate but remains a formidable bloc within the party. Beyond the cabinet lineup, there is speculation that Suga would have to call a snap election before the end of the year, both because of the perception that he was elected without a popular mandate and to enforce party discipline. However, it is far from certain that Suga would have more success than Abe at threatening to call a snap election, in light of calls that he prioritize crisis management over politics.
That said, Suga’s political acumen is considerable. Unlike many LDP politicians, he is not a hereditary lawmaker. Instead, he worked up from secretary to an LDP lawmaker, to local politician in Yokohama, and then rose to a ministerial post only ten years after election to the Diet. He is renown for his work ethic and his extensive network within the ruling parties and the bureaucracy. However, while he would be particularly capable at handling the domestic crises that await Abe’s successor, it is less clear how he would handle an especially challenging international environment, including worsening relations with China and South Korea, and the uncertainty surrounding the US presidential election and forthcoming host-nation support negotiations with the US. Suga has little experience in diplomacy and does not have the extensive relationships with foreign leaders that Abe, a foreign affairs specialist since he was first elected to the Diet, has long enjoyed. Suga’s choices for foreign minister as well as defense minister – who will be overseeing a comprehensive defense policy review launched by the Abe administration – will be particularly important, as will his choice of chief cabinet secretary, since Suga will need someone who can manage the flow of information and help with decision making just as he did for Abe. Given that the position has become a stepping stone to the premiership, his selection could be an important indicator of who would have the edge in a future leadership race.