August 31, 2021

Asia

JAPAN: Suga fights to win, as Kishida challenges and Kono ponders

BY James Brady

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( 6 mins)
  • With the pandemic reaching new levels of intensity, struggling Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga will fight for his position as head of his party and the government.
  • Fumio Kishida is the most significant challenger to declare to date, while the popular Taro Kono has yet to indicate his intentions.
  • The party faction chiefs are on maneuvers, but this time party chapters will have a greater say.

With the seven-day Covid-19 average now above 23,000, the healthcare system is increasingly struggling to cope, and critical care beds in some parts of the Tokyo region and elsewhere are said to be at around 90% capacity. Media attention is increasingly focused on very sick patients being turned away from multiple hospitals, numbering over 3,000 instances last week. The government again expanded its very limited’state of emergency’ measures to cover about 75% of the population, while calls for businesses to further implement remote working and for pedestrian traffic in busy city centers to reduce by half have gone largely unheeded. Going forward, the recent Obon holiday period could drive cases higher still, while economic activity will continue to be dampened until at least 12 September and further measures into the fall are a strong possibility.

But by now the Covid crisis and resulting low poll numbers are effectively baked into calculations about Suga’s prospects. More important in determining the future of this administration is the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)’s internal machinations. Despite the embarrassing result of the recent Yokohama mayoral election, Suga has been clear that he intends to fight to win the upcoming party leadership and general elections. Challengers are now emerging.

Most notable to date is Fumio Kishida, a former foreign minister and LDP policy chief. Though Abe’s protege and once his preferred successor, Kishida lacked popularity in the wider party and secured only 89 of 534 votes, including around 50 from the faction he leads. His stock fell again this April when the candidate he endorsed lost an important by-election on home turf in Hiroshima. His domestic platform largely incorporates existing monetary and fiscal policies, but also seeks to address income inequality, in essence a ‘kinder’ version of Abenomics. He also promises a stricter approach to the pandemic. On foreign policy, he is considered dove-ish, and the agreement he reached with South Korea as foreign minister in 2015 demonstrates his political skills. But within the party he is seen as lacking grit–a leader for peacetime not for wartime, in the words of one memorable critique.

Among other hopeful challengers, Hakubun Shimomura and Sanae Takaichi would be running in the same lane on the nationalist right of the party, still an important bloc. Shimomura is the current LDP policy chief, a member of Shinzo Abe’s Hosoda faction and has been mentioned by Abe as a potential future leader, while Takaichi is an unaligned former internal affairs minister. Both would likely govern in the Abe mold economically with a hawkish stance on foreign policy, though neither appears to have secured the ex-PM’s imprimatur.

Another unaligned right-leaning former internal affairs minister Seiko Noda has also expressed interest in running, but she, like Takaichi, would be considered a longer shot. Shigeru Ishiba placed third in last year’s contest and remains somewhat popular in the wider party and the country but looks like to sit it out this time. Youthful environment minister Shinjiro Koizumi’s name also gets mentioned in the media but does not have support with the party.

Still to decide is Taro Kono, the former foreign and defense minister who has topped several public polls this year. His current portfolio includes overseeing regulatory reform and the vaccination program, a tough brief that he has managed reasonably well. He is political blue-blood as the son of one- time LDP president Yohei Kono. The younger Kono has gained popularity as a plain speaker and decisive decision-maker, despite often being labelled a maverick. On domestic issues he has advocated for progressive policies, such as phasing out nuclear power. On foreign policy, he is adept and somewhat dove-ish. A Georgetown graduate and fluent English-speaker, he has strong connections to US policymaking circles, though notably he did cancel Japan’s Aegis Ashore missile defense plans in 2020.

Seemingly set on winning the prime ministerial post his father missed out on, Kono was apparently talked out of running last year by his faction leader Finance Minister Taro Aso, who counseled patience then and may do so again. Kono’s decision this time will also be complicated by his reportedly close relationship with Suga.

Ultimately, it is faction leaders like Taro Aso, Shinzo Abe and Toshihiro Nikai who will have an outsized influence on the vote. Nikai is the party’s longest-serving secretary-general, the powerful number two position appointed by the president. He and Suga have become allies, and Nikai this week reiterated his support for the incumbent. Abe and Aso were reportedly scheming together to replace Nikai with former Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) lead Akira Amari, a move that would likely have required a new party president, but that talk seems to have cooled. Now Abe and Aso are apparently inclining to back Suga, who was Abe’s loyal spokesman and policy-coordinator as cabinet chief secretary for almost eight years.

It was confirmed that the leadership campaign will begin on 17 September and the vote will be held on 29 September. Whereas last year’s election process was a scaled down affair, this year will see a full vote comprising 383 votes from the Diet members and the same number of votes from the party’s 47 prefectural chapters, allocated proportional to the preferences of prefectural politicians within those chapters. As such, the power of the kingmakers will be diluted this time, and the prefectural votes introduce a greater edge of uncertainty for the outcome.

To date Suga looks to be able to count on 79 votes from Diet members–47 from Nikai’s faction, 10 from the small Ishihara faction, and 22 from his own group of supporters. If he can confirm the 96 votes of Abe’s Hosoda faction and 50+ from Aso’s group, he will be in a strong position to win his fight.

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