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Japan after Abe

Japan ruling party leadership race to begin: Five things to know

Three-way LDP contest centers on economic policy

From left: Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba. (Source photos by Kai Fujii and Uichiro Kasai) 

TOKYO -- The campaign to elect the leader of Japan's Liberal Democratic Party to succeed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will start on Tuesday. Under party rules, the new leader will only serve out the remainder of Abe's three-year term, which runs until late September 2021.

Abe announced his resignation on Aug. 28 after nearly eight years in office. Since the LDP-led coalition holds a majority in both chambers of the Diet, Japan's parliament, and the Diet elects the prime minister, becoming leader of the LDP essentially means being crowned prime minister.

Key questions are whether the new leader can extend Abe's strong and stable leadership or signal a return to a period of so-called revolving-door prime ministers when many served for short periods.

The current LDP-led coalition government is expected to call a special Diet session to elect the prime minister on Sept. 16, following the party vote.

Here are five issues to keep in mind for the coming leadership race and what comes after it is decided.

How is a new leader elected?

The LDP said that the vote will be held in a slimmed-down format involving 394 lawmakers and 141 representatives from the party's 47 prefectural chapters, but will not include the 1.09 million rank-and-file party members.

The format was approved at a meeting of the party's executive council on Sept. 1. The LDP said the election needs to be held as soon as possible to relieve Abe of his burdens and also to cope with urgent issues related to the coronavirus pandemic. Abe cited his declining health in announcing his resignation.

The party normally elects its leader at a party convention -- the highest decision-making body -- involving all party members. But according to the rules, the president can also be elected in a simplified format -- involving only lawmakers and three representatives from each of the 47 prefectural chapters -- in emergency situations.

Under this format, the new leader will be chosen in a majority vote among a total of 535 ballots, instead of the usual one of 788 ballots split equally between lawmakers and rank-and-file officials. This format will thus give more weight to the preferences of lawmakers than to rank-and-file members.

Who are the candidates?

Leading the three-way race is Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, 71, who has served as a behind-the-scenes coordinator for domestic policy issues and as manager of personnel affairs at government ministries. An eight-term member of the lower house and a former internal affairs minister, Suga is a self-made man who has climbed the political ladder from his beginnings as a city councilor in Yokohama.

Suga is known to be pro-competition and pro-technology, and vows to accelerate a digital shift in government services, medicine and education. He has pressured mobile carriers into lowering phone rates and now plans to shake up the regional bank industry and the small business sector.

Fumio Kishida, a 63-year-old party policy chief and former foreign minister, advocates policies aimed at reducing income gaps and giving support to middle-class families, such as subsidies for education and housing. A third-generation lower house member, Kishida spent his formative years in New York and worked at a bank before entering politics.

Shigeru Ishiba, a 63-year-old veteran lawmaker, is running for party leadership for the fourth time. An 11th term member of the lower house, Ishiba previously served as defense minister, agriculture minister and minister in charge of regional revitalization. He has polled as the most popular choice among the party's rank-and-file members and the public at large.

What role do factions play?

Factions, or groups, within the LDP's parliamentary caucus play a key role in determining how many votes each candidate can expect from fellow lawmakers, who account for three quarters of the total number of ballots in the current election format.

The biggest faction is the one from which Abe comes from and has 98 members. It backs Suga.

Suga is also endorsed by the LDP's second largest faction led by Finance Minister Taro Aso with 54 members and by a faction led by LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai with 47 members.

"Suga has the strongest case to make in terms of his ability to govern from day one," says Tobias Harris, senior vice president at Teneo Intelligence, a political risk consultancy. "Given the most important task facing the next prime minister will be controlling the COVID-19 pandemic and promoting economic recovery, it is little surprise that party leaders are opting for the candidate who will be the most likely to provide administrative continuity."

Former Foreign Minister Kishida leads a faction with 47 members but has struggled to win backing from other factions. Another contender, Ishiba, also leads a faction but it has only 19 members.

What is the outlook for a general election?

A general election will have to be called by October 2021 when the four-year term of the members of the Diet's lower house comes to an end.

But there is talk that the LDP-led government will call a snap election as soon as a new prime minister is elected.

Historically, a new prime minister tends to be received more positively by the public. Already, the support rating for the LDP has jumped 6 points to 47% in an opinion poll conducted by Nikkei following the announcement of Abe's resignation. The survey showed that the largest opposition force, the Constitutional Democratic Party, has a support rating of merely 5%.

More than 60% of the respondents said that they want to see the LDP-Komeito coalition remain in power.

The elections of a new party leader and prime minister are likely to dominate the news cycle in Japan over the next couple of weeks, stealing thunder from opposition parties, which are poised to complete a merger around the middle of September, and putting the LDP in a favorable position ahead of a general election.

But ultimately all depends on how popular the new prime minister actually turns out to be. Without strong support, the new government will find it difficult to call a snap election and solidify its political base.

The new leader's ability to keep the party united depends to a large extent on his ability to deliver electoral victory. Abe has been such a strong leader because he carried the LDP to sixth straight victories in national elections since 2012.

What about the 2021 party convention?

The LDP will need to hold a formal leadership election involving all party members in September 2021 at the end of the three-year term of the officeholder. Thus, If reelected, the next party president would end up remaining as LDP leader -- and presumably prime minister -- for the next four years.

But there is a possibility that the leader could be replaced in the party election if opinion grows within the LDP that he isn't strong enough to lead the party in elections. In that case, the next leader will prove to have been a mere caretaker serving out the remainder of Abe's term.

Japanese voters are clearly looking for political stability rather than a return to revolving-door leadership. The Nikkei opinion poll shows that 56% said they want the next leader to stay in office for four years or longer.

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