Analysis

Japanese Prime Minister Suga Has No Clear Successor

Convoluted voting and elite splits mean the top job is up for grabs.

By , a senior fellow for Asia at the Center for American Progress and the author of The Iconoclast: Shinzo Abe and the New Japan.
Liberal Democratic Party presidential candidates (from left to right) Taro Kono, Fumio Kishida, Sanae Takaichi, and Seiko Noda
Liberal Democratic Party presidential candidates (from left to right) Taro Kono, Fumio Kishida, Sanae Takaichi, and Seiko Noda pose before a press conference in Tokyo on Sept. 17. Kimimasa Mayama/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

For the second time in as many years, on Sept. 29 Japan’s long-dominant Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) will hold an open election to choose a party president—and thus, thanks to the LDP’s healthy parliamentary majority, the next prime minister.

Unlike last year, however, when party elders united quickly behind current premier Yoshihide Suga, who promised continuity and competence after the sudden resignation of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, this year’s race is truly open. Although the LDP is a conservative party, its long-time dominance has rested in part on its tolerance for competing visions, and this year the field is crowded with four candidates representing the LDP’s many tendencies and factions. All are vying for the opportunity to put their stamp on the party as it prepares to face the electorate in a general election that must be held no later than Nov. 28.

As a result, the outcome is unusually difficult to predict—in large part because of the rules that the LDP uses to choose its leaders. In the initial round of voting, the LDP’s 382 lawmakers from the two houses of the Diet will each cast a vote. The party’s dues-paying members also get some say in the process: An estimated 1.1 million party supporters will be entitled to cast a ballot, which will determine how another 382 votes are split proportionally among the candidates.

For the second time in as many years, on Sept. 29 Japan’s long-dominant Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) will hold an open election to choose a party president—and thus, thanks to the LDP’s healthy parliamentary majority, the next prime minister.

Unlike last year, however, when party elders united quickly behind current premier Yoshihide Suga, who promised continuity and competence after the sudden resignation of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, this year’s race is truly open. Although the LDP is a conservative party, its long-time dominance has rested in part on its tolerance for competing visions, and this year the field is crowded with four candidates representing the LDP’s many tendencies and factions. All are vying for the opportunity to put their stamp on the party as it prepares to face the electorate in a general election that must be held no later than Nov. 28.

As a result, the outcome is unusually difficult to predict—in large part because of the rules that the LDP uses to choose its leaders. In the initial round of voting, the LDP’s 382 lawmakers from the two houses of the Diet will each cast a vote. The party’s dues-paying members also get some say in the process: An estimated 1.1 million party supporters will be entitled to cast a ballot, which will determine how another 382 votes are split proportionally among the candidates.

If no candidate wins a majority of the 764 votes in the first round, the top two candidates will go to an immediate runoff. The difference is that in the second round there is no popular vote. Instead, lawmakers again cast one vote each, but the party’s rank-and-file members are represented by the LDP’s 47 prefectural chapters, which each cast only one vote. In short, in the second round, party insiders can bargain and horse-trade to decide the victor, regardless of how grassroots supporters voted in the first round.

If the LDP’s leadership election were truly a popularity contest, there would be little doubt about who would win. The popular favorite is Taro Kono, a veteran lawmaker from a distinguished political family who boasts a long resume that included service as foreign and defense minister under Abe and, most recently, responsibility for Japan’s Covid-19 vaccination campaign as minister for administrative and regulatory reform. Kono is known as a maverick for taking positions at odds with his LDP colleagues—he was an opponent of nuclear power long before the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster—and is popular with voters in part due to his ability to communicate clearly with the public, particularly via Twitter, where he has 2.4 million followers.

Polls show that both the general public and LDP supporters overwhelmingly prefer Kono to the other candidates: Fumio Kishida, who also served as foreign minister under Abe, and Seiko Noda and Sanae Takaichi, two women who both served as minister of internal affairs and communications under Abe. Kono is approaching 50 percent support among LDP voters and is by far the most popular candidate among the public as a whole; Kishida is running a distant second at around 20 percent. However, no candidate can win a first-round victory on the back of popular support alone. Kono would have to win overwhelming support from the party’s lawmakers as well to cross the 50 percent threshold on the first vote.

And that’s where things get messy. Kono’s history of taking positions out of step with his colleagues, doubts about his ability to govern, and growing concerns on the right about his commitment to a hardline approach toward China could complicate his chances not only of winning a first-round victory but of sealing a victory in a runoff. As a result, Kono’s rivals are engaged in a heated battle for second place, hoping that if they can survive to the final round they can ride anti-Kono sentiment to victory.

But lawmakers also have one eye on the upcoming general election. Although the LDP’s position has improved since the deeply unpopular Suga announced his exit, the ruling party still faces what could be the most competitive election in years, both due to better coordination among opposition parties and the public’s dissatisfaction with the Suga government’s handling of the pandemic.

The LDP’s most junior lawmakers, who have not had enough time to build up stable electoral bases or who occupy constituencies more vulnerable to national vote swings, are particularly anxious. Not surprisingly, they want the party to pick the candidate most acceptable to the greatest number of voters. It was these members who were most concerned about contesting an election under Suga’s leadership and helped secure his exit.

Meanwhile, the role of the LDP’s factions, which may have broad ideological colorations but are more focused on supporting the career prospects of their members than advancing ideological platforms, could be more limited in this election. Although factions normally vote more or less en bloc for candidates, these junior members have pressured faction leaders not to tell their members how to vote in the leadership election, freeing them to back the candidate who they believe best improves their electoral prospects. With only the Kishida faction committed to a candidate—Kishida himself, of course—the votes of the members of the remaining six factions and the sixty-three lawmakers not belonging to any faction are all up for grabs, freeing them to vote for the candidate who best represents their personal interests or ideological preferences.

Each candidate has approached this challenge differently. While Kono has made a few tactical adjustments—declaring his support for nuclear energy in the near term, for example—in a bid to appeal to lawmakers, he has mostly emphasized his electability. Takaichi, a strident conservative and longtime member of Abe’s inner circle, is the darling of the LDP’s sizable right-wing bloc. Her candidacy was given a major boost when Abe gave her his full-throated support, and she has seen her support from the rank-and-file supporters grow, threatening to pass Kishida for second place. Kishida, widely regarded as a dovish moderate who lacks Kono’s public following, has tried to appeal to the LDP’s right by calling for Japan to acquire the capabilities to strike missile bases in neighboring countries; for party reform to appeal to dissatisfied younger lawmakers; and for an “end to neoliberalism,” a phrase also used by the opposition, in a bid for broader public support. And Noda, meanwhile, is trying to make up ground by presenting her candidacy as an opportunity to make history by electing Japan’s first female prime minister (a tack not taken by Takaichi).

Therefore, a runoff seems inevitable—and very hard to predict. Assuming he wins the popular vote by a decisive margin, Kono will argue that the party will be undercutting its electoral prospects if it denies him leadership. This argument would be particularly effective if Kono faces Takaichi, whose hard right beliefs would likely be an electoral liability. However, if Kono faces Kishida in the second round, the latter could prevail thanks to the right wing, which does not entirely trust Kono. Either way, the contest will likely be settled after fierce bargaining before the decisive vote.

It is tempting to conclude that none of these machinations matter. After all, none of the four contenders is pledging a decisive break with the policies pursued by Abe and Suga—and LDP rule is likely to survive the general election whoever wins.

That said, the candidates are offering distinct visions of the society they want Japan to be. Kono has stressed the importance of democracy, Noda of diversity. Takaichi, meanwhile, has called for stoutly defending the lives and property of the Japanese people and the honor of the Japanese nation. Each candidate wants to tell a different story about Japan’s future. Each would affect how the Japanese people view their own government and how other countries view Japan.

The process may be byzantine and less than democratic, but who the LDP chooses as its next leader—and how it does so—will ultimately determine the story Japan tells about itself in an increasingly turbulent world.

Tobias Harris is a senior fellow for Asia at the Center for American Progress and the author of The Iconoclast: Shinzo Abe and the New Japan. Twitter: @observingjapan

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

The Taliban delegation leaves the hotel after meeting with representatives of Russia, China, the United States, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Qatar in Moscow on March 19.

China and the Taliban Begin Their Romance

Beijing has its eyes set on using Afghanistan as a strategic corridor once U.S. troops are out of the way.

An Afghan security member pours gasoline over a pile of seized drugs and alcoholic drinks

The Taliban Are Breaking Bad

Meth is even more profitable than heroin—and is turbocharging the insurgency.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya addresses the U.N. Security Council from her office in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sept. 4, 2020.

Belarus’s Unlikely New Leader

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya didn’t set out to challenge a brutal dictatorship.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid

What the Taliban Takeover Means for India

Kabul’s swift collapse leaves New Delhi with significant security concerns.