[Analytics] Suga’s resignation opens up Japan’s leadership race

Yoshihide Suga. PHOTO: EPA-EFE. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

On 3 September 2021, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga unexpectedly announced he would not run in the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) presidential race scheduled for 29 September. Suga’s withdrawal opens up the leadership race and speculation is mounting as to who will throw their hat in the ring and prevail. Jeff Kingston specially for the East Asia Forum.

Earlier in the week Suga seemed intent on clinging to his job, hinting he might call a snap Diet election aimed at wrongfooting rivals within the party and catching the opposition camp unprepared while delaying the LDP presidential contest. This plan, however, was vetoed by party heavyweights.

Trying to regain the initiative, Suga convinced LDP Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai to step down and announced a reshuffle of party executives. These moves aimed to counter Fumio Kishida, his chief rival for the LDP presidency, who vowed to shake up the party leadership and impose term limits. But party elders rejected the reshuffle.

Suga also faced waning support within the party. Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso refused to confirm his faction’s support and Nikai had trouble mobilising his faction in support of Suga. Younger LDP members who are at greater risk of losing their seats in the upcoming Diet election openly expressed concerns about running under Suga’s banner.

Former foreign minister Fumio Kishida and Sanae Takaichi, who served in several cabinet posts under former prime minister Shinzo Abe, have signalled their intention to run, but neither is likely to win. The most popular potential candidates are former defence minister Shigeru Ishiba and current Minister of Administrative Reform Taro Kono.

What went wrong for Suga? When Abe anointed him as his successor and to serve out his term as LDP president, Suga enjoyed over 70 per cent public support. But his popularity soon began to ebb in October 2020 when he vetoed six nominees to the Science Council, a government advisory body. He was unable to clearly explain why he did so, but it appeared to be in retaliation for their criticism of Abe’s security policies that most of the public share concerns about.

Suga’s next misstep was restarting his signature ‘Go To’ campaign in late 2020 subsidising domestic travel and the consequent surge in COVID-19 cases. Suga then backed holding the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympics despite polls indicating 80 per cent of the public was opposed. Suga gambled that the Games would give him a political boost, but as of 22 August, his support rate had plunged to just 25.8 per cent due to his poor communication and crisis management skills.

Suga is widely blamed for Japan’s slow vaccination rollout and sharp rise in COVID-19 cases. Public ire focussed on Japan’s chaotic vaccination roll out, with just 23 per cent fully vaccinated when the games opened, leaving it last in the G7. By the end of August, 44 per cent were fully vaccinated, a remarkable but belated improvement.

Two-thirds of voters didn’t want him to remain leader, over 60 per cent believed that the Olympics contributed to the rapid increase in infections and 80 per cent worried about the government’s policy for treating COVID-19 patients. Suga’s decision in early August to restrict hospitalisation to those with severe symptoms sparked a powerful backlash that overwhelmed any glow from Japan’s record Olympic medal haul. The nexus of the Olympics, the Delta variant, a poorly managed vaccination program and a public weary of COVID-19 countermeasures has overwhelmed hospitals.

Suga was also undermined by the recent Yokohama mayoral contest. Hachiro Okonogi, an LDP-endorsed candidate and close Suga ally, finished a distant second to Takeharu Yamanaka, an academic with no prior political experience backed by opposition parties. It was a damning result for Suga, as Yokohama is the capital of Kanagawa prefecture where his constituency is located.

Voters focussed on the mishandling of the pandemic and the incumbent Yokohama mayor’s plan to bid on hosting a casino in the city. It helped that Yamanaka is a data scientist who has studied vaccine efficacy on mutant strains of the coronavirus, a key voter concern as the Delta variant now accounts for almost 90 per cent of COVID-19 infections in Japan.

Yamanaka’s victory demonstrates how electoral cooperation between the Constitutional Democratic Party, the Japan Communist Party and Social Democratic Party might influence the upcoming Diet election. Backing unified candidates is an opposition strategy for countering LDP candidates who have capitalised on a fractured opposition, thus splitting the vote.

The other takeaway from Yokohama is the increase in voter turnout, from 37 per cent in 2017 to 49 per cent in 2021. For the LDP this is worrisome if it plays out nationwide, since the party has benefitted from low turnout.

But Yokohama may not be a national bellwether. Asked in mid-August which party they plan to vote for in the upcoming Diet election, 38.4 per cent said the LDP and 12.2 per cent said the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan.

Due to his poor performance and minimal achievements, Suga set the bar low for his potential successor. Whoever prevails in the LDP presidential contest, the party seems likely to lose seats in the upcoming Diet election. A fresh face at the top might help. Kono has many enemies in the LDP, but they might rally behind him because a good communicator is essential to offer a vision of hope and convince voters that the LDP can deliver on economic revival and a blueprint for emerging from the woes of the pandemic. Kono seems the best candidate to hit the reset button, rouse party members and reach out to unaffiliated voters.

The abiding concern is that Suga lasted just about a year and that Japan may be in for another period of revolving premiers.

Jeff Kingston is Professor and Director of Asian Studies at Temple University, Japan Campus.

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