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Suga's exit deals a major blow to Japan's opposition

Taro Kono the clear favorite to win the LDP leadership race

| Japan
Taro Kono, minister in charge of the inoculation program, speaks at a press conference on Mar. 26: Kono is free to enter the race without having to challenge Suga. (Photo by Yumi Kotani)

Tobias Harris is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, an independent nonpartisan policy institute. He is the author of "The Iconoclast: Shinzo Abe and the New Japan."

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's decision on Friday not to seek a new term as leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party has scrambled the fortunes of ambitious politicians, as well as the ruling and opposition blocs.

What once seemed to be certain -- that the LDP would have to contest a general election with a deeply unpopular leader deemed to have mishandled a major public health crisis -- is now anything but. Suddenly the LDP has an opportunity to opt for a new, more popular leader ahead of the general election that must be held no later than November 28.

While it might take several weeks for the dust to settle, it is already clear that Suga's decision is better for some players than for others.

Perhaps the biggest winner is Taro Kono, the highly ambitious vaccination czar who is free to enter the race without having to challenge Suga. If he runs, Kono will be the presumptive favorite. Few candidates in the field can match his popularity and, with the LDP's lawmakers eager to find a leader who can bolster their electoral chances. His affable charm and ability to communicate directly with the public could help bring around party members who in other circumstances might have been reluctant to support Kono.

For that reason, the LDP and its junior coalition partner Komeito are also winners. After Suga could not even guide his preferred candidate to victory in the mayoral election in Yokohama -- his political hometown -- it was clear that the party could lose dozens of seats in the general election.

Now, the new LDP leader can enter the campaign enjoying a honeymoon with the public, which -- at the very least -- could minimize potential losses.

Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Finance Minister Taro Aso -- himself a former prime minister -- have emerged as the closest thing the LDP has to kingmakers. Their silence as Suga floundered made the prime minister's position more desperate.

They successfully forced him to drop Toshihiro Nikai as the LDP's secretary-general, which they have openly desired for months. As the leaders of the LDP's two largest factions respectively, Abe and Aso will play a major role in determining who emerges victorious. In Aso's case, Kono is a member of his faction.

Their dominance is hardly unchallenged and the Hosoda faction -- which Abe formally left as prime minister but over which he continues to wield influence -- is still unsure of its identity after Abe's resignation left it without a standard-bearer. Nevertheless, the two former prime ministers are poised to wield tremendous influence over the next one.

Suga's downfall comes as a significant blow to the one candidate who had already launched a spirited campaign against the prime minister, Fumio Kishida.

Abe's former foreign minister launched his campaign with raft of proposals aimed at reforming the LDP's governance, which in practice were aimed squarely at Nikai in a bid to pry away the support of Abe and Aso from the prime minister. He appeared to be well-positioned to take attract the support of backbenchers discontented with Suga, and would have at the very least made Suga work harder for another term as leader.

Now, with Suga out of the race, Kishida's liabilities come to the fore. Both less well-known and not as popular than Kono or former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba, another possible contender, Kishida's faction is smaller. He has also been unable to shake perceptions that he is not suited to lead during a crisis. In a crowded field, Kishida will struggle to stand out.

Former party policy chief Fumio Kishida speaks during an interview at his office on Sept. 2: in a crowded field, Kishida will struggle to stand out. (Photo by Uichiro Kasai)  

Suga's exit is also a blow to the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, which was eager for the chance to run against Suga. Working with the Japanese Communist Party, Social Democratic Party, and the Democratic Party for the People, the CDP was poised to convert public dissatisfaction with the government's handling of the COVID crisis into significant gains throughout the country.

Of course, no one lost more than Suga himself. Not only will he make an ignominious exit, but he also leaves with his reputation as a formidable administrator in tatters. By the end, it was apparent that he was not the open and transparent communicator or the decisive decision maker that the public felt the prime minister should be during a pandemic, and his support suffered accordingly.

With greater distance, his government may be better regarded for its climate change, digitalization and foreign policies, but for the time being he may be better remembered for the increasingly desperate series of maneuvers he undertook in his final days as he tried to save his premiership.

But as Suga well knows, today's winners could very well be tomorrow's losers. The pandemic still awaits as a significant challenge. Japan's relationship with China is only becoming more difficult. And, even with a new leader, the LDP still has to contest a general election this year and an upper house election in 2022.

Suga's departure also suggests that the frozen politics of the Abe years -- a lengthy peace between the LDP's dueling factions and personalities, a fractured and ineffectual opposition, and stable public opinion -- may be at an end. Political fortune could be more fickle in the future.

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