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Inside Japanese politics

Race to replace Abe threatens stability of Japanese politics

Autumn snap election looms as premier seeks to restore lost influence over party

From left, former Foreign Minister Kishida, Prime Minister Abe, cabinet secretary Suga, fomer defense minister Ishiba.
Pictured, from left to right, are Fumio Kishida, who chairs the Liberal Democratic Party's Policy Research Council, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and Shigeru Ishiba, a former defense minister. (Nikkei Montage)

TOKYO -- Japanese politics have been remarkably stable even as a strain of populism swept much of the world. That may be coming to an end, however, as the new coronavirus has turned the country's political and economic landscape totally upside down

Shinzo Abe is Japan's longest serving prime minister. He has been in office for a total of eight and a half years encompassing two different terms, the most recent one beginning in December 2012. The steadiness of his tenure has supported economic growth and improved Japan's standing in the international community. But the Abe Cabinet's support rate plummeted after it fumbled its early response to the virus and as the economy suffered from shutdown measures. With Abe's support crumbling and his term as the president of the Liberal Democratic Party -- and therefore as the leader of Japan -- approaching its end in 15 months, politicians are scrambling to figure out who will emerge on top in the post-Abe world.

The Cabinet's approval rate dropped 11 percentage points in June to 38%, according to a Nikkei survey. That level is close to the record-low figure of December 2012, just after Abe returned to the premiership. The latest results reflect widespread dissatisfaction with the Cabinet's response to the pandemic, as well as a recent scandal involving a high-ranking prosecutor in the Tokyo Prosecutors Office.

But the biggest issue for Abe, who has always pitched his "Abenomics" economic policy package as a top issue, is the slowing economy. The coronavirus hit the global economy hard, and Japan is no exception. As Abe's appeal fades, other actors in the LDP are positioning themselves to succeed him.

"Discontent with Kishida is bubbling up within the party," Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso said to Abe at a June 10 meeting in the Prime Minister's Office. The two allies have considered Fumio Kishida, a former foreign minister and the current chair of the LDP's powerful Policy Research Council, as the main candidate to be the next party president.

But the situation changed after a Kishida-backed proposal to provide 300,000 yen ($2,800) to certain households in response to the pandemic fizzled out. Significant backlash erupted from both the public and within the LDP over the idea's complexity and feasibility.

Abe and Kishida, who both entered politics in 1993, are longtime allies, but Kishida is still considered a low-profile figure. Abe has provided Kishida with opportunities to stand out, telling him, "You need to show more of a fighting spirit if you're going to win the presidency yourself."

Kishida, for his part, has taken some preliminary steps. In late May, he told LDP heavyweight Akira Amari that he wanted Amari to lead a new body to work out a vision for Japan's post-coronavirus future.

Kishida (right), asked LDP heavyweight Akira Amari (left) to lead a new body to work out a vision for Japan’s post-coronavirus future.

"Let's paint a big picture," Amari responded. "You can make it your own vision." Amari is close to Abe, and he belongs to an intraparty faction led by Aso. With the backing of Abe and the Aso faction, Kishida is trying to develop a vision for his own administration.

But his support has not grown. In early June, a senior member of Abe's own Hosoda faction told the premier, "There is no one in our faction who is seriously committed to supporting Kishida."

"I would imagine so," Abe responded. "I'd guess maybe seven or eight people will run for the party presidency, including candidates from the other factions." With such lackluster support and with Abe's own influence at a low, a peaceful transfer to Kishida has become more difficult.

The Prime Minister's Office has been the dominant player in Japanese politics thanks to Abe's own popularity. When Abe's support fell on previous occasions, his economic policies or diplomatic developments saved his administration. His close friendship with U.S. President Donald Trump had been a political asset until recently, but COVID-19 has made it impossible for them to meet in person, and Trump's own approval rate has fallen.

With so much of the post-Abe world still unclear, rumors have started circulating that the prime minister may dissolve the lower house in the autumn and call a snap election. Aso has urged him to do so repeatedly. "If the lower house is dissolved in the fall, the LDP would lose some seats, but it wouldn't lose overall because the opposition is so weak," he said.

Several major events will come in the autumn. The decision whether to go ahead with the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 will be made then or later, and the U.S. presidential election will also be decided in November. The idea is to win a lower house election before these events and breathe new life into the administration.

"If we win in the election, then the prime minister will have the initiative when it comes to who succeeds him," said a lawmaker close to Abe. Abe himself "seeking an extended term beyond 2021 will also become an option."

On Friday night, Abe held his first evening meeting in three months. Aso, Amari and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga were also present. "I wanted to restart dinner meetings with the four of us first," he told them. It was the first such meeting for the four, key figures who have shaped the administration, in three years. Abe dissolved the lower house a few months after that previous dinner in 2017.

Despite the hit to his popularity, Abe remains the favorite within the LDP to lead the party in an election."An election under a post-Abe leader would be tough for the LDP," said a lower house lawmaker. "The LDP will want to hold the election under Abe's leadership." Abe has traditionally performed well in elections. He led the LDP to victory in the past five national elections. His term as head of the LDP will end in September 2021, and the current lower house term will end in October 2021. However, two years and eight months -- just one month short of the actual average term -- of the current term have already passed.

Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso (right) has repeatedly urged Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (left) to dissolve the lower house in the autumn.

An electoral win would shore up Abe's ability to influence who will be his successor, but a poor showing or stagnant economic growth could benefit some dark horses. In a recent opinion poll, Shigeru Ishiba, a former defense minister and LDP secretary-general, was the top choice to succeed Abe. Ishiba, a vocal Abe critic, has seen his support rise as disapproval of the administration has grown.

But Ishiba lacks support within the party. His own party faction counts just 19 members, one short of the 20 recommendations needed to run in the LDP leadership election. He has courted support from the current LDP secretary-general, Toshihiro Nikai, and lawmakers from other party factions, and he has adopted a more solicitous attitude toward younger politicians in a bid to gain their support.

Other politicians are also jockeying for position. On June 11, a new group was formed under the initiative of former Education Minister Hakubun Shimomura and former Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, both of the Hosoda faction. The group, which was to discuss society after COVID-19, attracted 136 members. It was focused on the same topic that Kishida asked Amari to lead on. Within the Hosoda faction, Shimomura, Inada and Yasutoshi Nishimura, who doubles as minister of state for economic and fiscal policy and minister in charge of economic revitalization, are seen as strong candidates to lead the LDP.

Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, a member of the Takeshita faction and another party heavyweight, and Defense Minister Taro Kono of the Aso faction are also considered to be likely candidates. Secretary-General Nikai recently praised Ishiba as a "rising star," but he also regularly shares information with Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga. Suga himself is another post-Abe possibility. The complex personal relationships developing within the LDP make it difficult to see who will emerge strongest.

Since the start of his administration, Abe has generally enjoyed strong popularity thanks to expanded employment and other benefits from the Japanese economic recovery he led. But now the coronavirus has brought the economy to a halt. Distrust in the political process may grow if anxiety over employment increases, especially if the ruling party cannot get behind a new leader. With the LDP divided and many politicians restless after Abe's long turn at the helm, Japanese politics may become much less stable in the near future.

Inside Japanese Politics is a column that focuses on the details and inner workings of Tokyo statecraft, policy and foreign relations.

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