TOKYO -- Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is set to face two electoral tests this year -- a vote for the presidency of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party in late September and a general election that has to be held by October 22.
While public support for Suga remains low over the government's sluggish response to the pandemic, rivals in the LDP are struggling to emerge as strong contenders to lead the party.
Both of Suga's rivals in the LDP presidential election held last year after Shinzo Abe's resignation are struggling to gain support as they eye runs in the autumn party race.
Fumio Kishida, former foreign minister and chairman of the LDP Policy Research Council, faces a test of a by-election in his home prefecture of Hiroshima on April 25. While his own lower house seat is secure, the LDP is fighting to keep an upper-house seat that opened up after the incumbent was found guilty of vote buying.
Kishida's Kochikai faction of the LDP has installed 30 aides in the prefecture to campaign for the seat since early March. A minimum requirement for party leaders is to ensure the party wins elections in his or locality, and a loss in the Hiroshima by-election would all but end Kishida's hopes of leading the party -- and, barring an unlikely general election defeat, becoming prime minister.
"The election is extremely important to Kochikai. We cannot afford to lose it," Kishida said.
Kishida may also face a fight to stay as leader of his faction. Upper-house lawmaker Yoshimasa Hayashi is planning to run in the next election for the more powerful lower house. This plan appears to reflect Hayashi's desire to become a candidate for LDP president, and some faction members are calling for Kishida to cede the faction leadership to Hayashi.
Suga's other rival last year, Shigeru Ishiba, a former defense minister and LDP secretary-general, is also in a tough spot.
Ishiba offered to resign from the leadership of his faction after his defeat to Suga, and has since been struggling to unify the group. Upper-house member Satoshi Nakanishi quit the faction in February, and Tatsuya Ito, former minister of state for financial affairs, followed in March.
The Ishiba faction now has 17 members, and candidates for LDP poll need to secure recommendations from 20 lawmakers to run for president.
Ishiba is also suffering from the effects of reports that he attended a dining party with a considerable number of people in Fukuoka Prefecture in January immediately after the government declared a state of emergency in Tokyo and three neighboring prefectures. He has since refrained from criticizing the Suga administration and talking about his intention to run.
Opinion polls show that Taro Kono, administrative and regulatory reform minister, and Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi, are seen by the public as possible successors. Suga is giving preferable treatment to both ministers so as to contain their emergence as a direct rival and reinforce his power in the party to nurture them as future candidates for party president.
Suga calls the pair the "two front men" of his cabinet.
Asked in a Nikkei survey in January who the next prime minister should be, 25% of respondents named Kono, 9 percentage points higher than Ishiba in second place.
Suga has put Kono in charge of Japan's COVID-19 vaccination drive, and Koizumi is tasked with combating climate change -- a core policy of the Suga administration.
Suga continues to live in a public dormitory for lower-house members, instead of the prime minister's official residence. While the pandemic has prevented lawmakers from night gatherings, Kono, Koizumi and other lawmakers elected from Kanagawa Prefecture get together in the dormitory at night or on holidays. Suga, whose seat is in the same prefecture, is often seen chatting with them.
Suga is the first prime minister who does not belong to an intraparty faction. The dormitory group has been dubbed "Team Kanagawa" and observers say that some of the conversations develop into policy measures for issues such as decarbonization.
Suga places weight on Kono and Koizumi because of their ability to get his message across to the public, and also to nurture them as future candidates for party president by enabling them to hold key cabinet posts, deal with industry groups and negotiate with foreign countries.
The presence of promising future LDP leaders on his side will help Suga strengthen his reign over the party.