(First of two parts.)
On August 28, Shinzo Abe suddenly announced he would resign, citing health reasons, just days after becoming the longest-serving prime minister in Japan’s history.
Now, at the highest levels of the National Diet, leading members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) are moving quickly to ensure that a successor is chosen and the government maintains normal operations.
What is this process and who are the candidates for the next prime minister of Japan? What can we expect over the next few weeks, and beyond?
JAPAN Forward teams up with the Hiroike Yoshikazu, a staff writer in the political section of The Sankei Shimbun who has covered both ruling and opposition parties in the past several years, including Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, the candidate currently favored to succeed Mr. Abe as prime minister.
Below are some of the ins and outs of choosing Shinzo Abe’s successor.
Shinzo Abe announced he would resign. How was that taken inside the LDP at the time?
It came as a real surprise that Abe would resign after becoming the longest-standing prime minister in office.
The atmosphere was quite depressed, it was a shock for everyone. Many people thought that it would somehow turn out okay, that he could work until the end of his term. But then the announcement of Abe’s resignation came suddenly.
What is happening now?
After Mr. Abe resigned, the majority party had to regroup and decide how to elect the next president of the LDP, who will also become the next prime minister of Japan.
The LDP is the biggest party in both houses of the National Diet, with 113 seats out of 245 in the House of Councillors, and 248 seats out of 465 in the House Representatives. Together with a smaller party, the Komeito, the coalition holds the majority in both houses.
Currently, there are three candidates in the race. They are Shigeru Ishiba, Fumio Kishida, and Yoshihide Suga.
How it works is that factions decide who to support, and nearing the vote it becomes clear who the winner will be.
There are seven main factions in the LDP, and although the vote has yet to start, five factions have expressed their support for Mr. Suga. Already from an early stage, the three largest factions in the party (Hosoda, Aso, and Nikai) have pledged support for Mr. Suga, thereby narrowing the odds.
Currently, unless something really unusual happens, the result is pretty clear that Mr. Suga will win.
What is the schedule going to look like?
In the coming week, on September 8, there will be an official announcement of the candidates who will run to be the next leader of the party.
On September 14 there will be a vote among members of the LDP, which, with its partner the Komeito party, holds a majority in the Diet. Finally, September 16 will see a vote in both houses of the Diet.
Further down the line in the autumn of 2021, the next general election is set to take place, when Prime Minister Abe’s term was supposed to end.
Why has the race boiled down to three candidates?
With many names coming up, the choice quickly narrowed down to three, as various factions indicated their preference. In some ways, it shows the influence factions are having in shaping the race for prime minister.
At different points, candidates such as Taro Kono (Taro Aso faction), the current Minister of Defense, and Toshimitsu Motegi (Wataru Takeshita faction), the current Minister of Foreign Affairs, came up as possible options in the debate on who should follow Abe. However, both dropped out of the race when the factions they belonged to decided to support Mr. Suga.
Other possible candidates included former interior affairs minister Seiko Noda, rising star and current Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi. But Ms. Noda also expressed her support early on for Suga, and Mr. Koizumi said he would support Taro Kono, then since Kono chose to withdraw from the race, Minister Koizumi shifted his support towards Suga.
What is the background of the three candidates?
Fumio Kishida was recently the LDP Party Policy chief. He was foreign minister from 2012 to 2017, and has been viewed as a successor for Shinzo Abe. Mr. Abe himself had great hopes for him, and Mr. Kishida wanted to pick up the post-Abe challenge. That, he says, is why he’s running.
Shigeru Ishiba was defense minister from 2007 to 2008, minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries from 2008 to 2009, and minister for overcoming population decline and vitalizing local economies from 2014 to 2016. He has made bids for the party president position several times in the past, so it was predictable he would try again.
Yoshihide Suga, on the other hand, was not known to have had a plan to run before this crisis unfolded. His role during the Abe administration had been to support the prime minister as chief cabinet secretary (2012 to present), and he himself always thought of himself like that. He also served as minister for internal affairs and communications (2006 to 2007). Moreover, he is not affiliated with any faction in the party.
With Mr. Abe’s worsening health, many people in the LDP suggested that he (Suga) should take over, and after considering it Mr. Suga decided to run.
Why has Mr. Suga gained so much support?
It appears many LDP members are looking for stability and continuity following the Abe administration.
Mr. Suga has been the LDP member who has followed and supported Mr. Abe for the longest. There has also been a consensus among party members that if someone were needed to take over for Mr. Abe in an emergency, “there is no other option apart from Suga.”
The thought has been that if Mr. Suga takes over, Japan’s stance won’t change. At the same time, if other candidates want to aim for party leadership and become prime minister, they can run in the elections in 2021.
What kind of political system does Japan use to select the prime minister?
Japan has a parliamentary system, based on the British system. Candidates for prime minister are chosen from inside the majority party.
Candidates must be a member of the National Diet and have the support of at least 20 members in order to run for party leader.
Normally, the party president is chosen from a combination of votes: 394 cast from members of the National Diet, and 394 to proportionally represent the one million-plus members of the LDP throughout Japan.
The latter represent local prefectures and are not members of the National Diet. Under the LDP rules, their vote counts less than the members of the Diet.
Once the party president is elected, the majority party nominates him or her for prime minister in an extraordinary session of the Diet. The formal election takes place and the prime minister is in office until the next general election. The normal term is four years.
Why do prime ministers often serve less than four years?
Historically, most prime ministers dissolve the Diet and call an election before the four years are up. Sometimes they also resign before their term is up.
Some ascribe this to a culture of leaders taking responsibility and quitting, when in other countries leaders might persevere despite heavy criticism. There was a period between 2007 and 2012 in which Japan changed prime ministers annually.
This helps to illustrate why Shinzo Abe’s long tenure in office is unusual. He finished one full term of four years as prime minister, and was a year away from finishing his second four year term.
What’s different in the selection process this time?
The LDP General Council will conduct the election under Article 6 of the party rules governing emergency situations. There are likely many factors the LDP considered, including the national struggle to contain COVID-19. Many also wanted to avoid the risk of a political vacuum.
Under Article 6, LDP members who are also members of the National Diet have the power to decide who runs for the position.
In addition, it was decided to give each of the 47 prefectures three votes (adding up to 141 votes), which will be added to the votes of the LDP Diet members. This is in contrast to the standard, non-emergency process of having several weeks of door-to-door campaigning in the countryside and gathering the 394 votes to represent LDP supporters.
The LDP chapters in each prefecture choose what method to use to assign their three votes, which could be by proportional representation or winner-takes-all formulas.
Article 6 has been used in the past to select the next party leader, including when Mr. Abe resigned in his first stint as prime minister in 2007, and again in 2008 when Yasuo Fukuda resigned as prime minister.
There has been some backlash this time. Why?
There was some backlash from Mr. Ishiba as well as among young members of the LDP, who argued that more voices of the LDP base should be included.
Part of the reason for the backlash is that Mr. Ishiba has more support outside of the National Diet and less among LDP leaders. He is at a disadvantage if regional votes are not included. At the same time, the non-emergency process to include proportional representation from the prefectures leads to a more time-consuming process.
In addition, Article 6 of the LDP charter is a legitimate process with precedent for selecting the next party leader.
If it’s largely already decided, why are Mr. Kishida and Mr. Ishiba still running?
With the result largely decided, naturally people have been asking, “Is there even any meaning in running?”
However, there are various reasons to go through the process.
The most important reason, though, is that all three candidates are aiming to become prime minister at some point, if not now. Even if they know they will lose, it’s an important opportunity to showcase their ideas and policies inside the party and to the country as a whole.
In doing so, they can see it as a trial in preparation for the elections due to take place next year in 2021.
There is a rumor that there will be a snap election in October 2020. Is that likely?
It’s a well-spread rumor, and it is possible that it will happen.
However, it is the next prime minister who will decide this.
The next prime minister, after being sworn in, would have to choose to dissolve the Diet and call a snap election. Similar to a national vote of confidence, he would be asking the people of Japan if they support him as prime minister.
One reason for such a move could be to reinforce the popular support for the government, since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s approval rating was low in the first part of 2020.
Because Mr. Abe expressed his wish to resign, and with Mr. Suga predicted to become prime minister, it’s estimated that public support will go up immediately. Therefore, some believe it would be a good opportunity to hold a snap election.
To corroborate such suppositions, on September 6 on BS TV Tokyo, the chairman of the LDP Shunichi Suzuki shared some of the reasoning behind the rumor of a snap election.
“As the fresh cabinet is formed, the idea is to ask the opinion of the Japanese people while the approval rating is still high. That is one good reason [to dissolve the Diet].”
The chairman also shared his view on the matter, saying: “I’m one of those who is leaning in that direction”
In addition, the opposition has not yet decided its positioning in the event a national election is called, so there are many in the LDP who think it would be a good time to strike.
It’s expected that if an election is called, it will be announced within the month of September and likely take place within the following month.
(To be continued: Part 2 will take a look at the LDP member who is widely expected to become the next prime minister.)
Author: Arielle Busetto