Japanese Election Primer

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has announced he will not seek a second term as leader of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, setting in motion a party leadership contest that will be decided on September 29th

What's next for the party that's ruled Japan for decades?  

Yoshihide Suga steps down after just one year in the job, amid wide-ranging criticism over the country’s Covid response, and the staging of the Olympic Games amid a pandemic.

While the games may have been deemed a success in Japan, Suga has struggled to gain any leverage in the polls, which have seen his personal approval ratings drop below 30 percent.

For many Japanese, Suga is now seen as the wrong man at the wrong time, and while most of the Covid response blunders were not of his making, he carries the ultimate responsibility.

Departing Japanese leader Yoshihide Suga/ photo Wikimedia

He came to the leadership on the back of popular PM Shinzo Abe, and with a brief to largely continue Abe's work on the economy and elsewhere. Then Covid came knocking and Japan appeared to stumble amid pathetic vaccination rates, a controversial staging of the Olympic Games, and even a ban on beer sales.

Japan's Covid death toll stands just under 17,000, and infections at present sit just over 9000 a day. The country's vaccination rate is slowly picking up but was at one stage one of the lowest in the OECD.       

The former foreign minister Fumio Kishida has already indicated an interest in the top job, as has Covid response minister Taro Kono, and former internal minister Sanae Takaichi, who could claim the role as the first woman in history to lead the party.  

Kishida has emerged as an early frontrunner, and has been regarded by many as the heir apparent to both Suga, and Shinzo Abe, in whose government he spent nearly five years as foreign minister. He’s also a well known figure internationally, and strong on the “Free & Open Indo-Pacific” policy so favoured in Washington and other western capitals.

Kishida has a strong CV, by Covid Minister Kono is also showing strongly in the polls.

Japanese Covid response Minister Taro Kono/ photo wikimedia

While Suga's popularity nose-dived due to his vague and uncoordinated response to the pandemic, Kono has remained largely untouched by the bad press and bad polling, despite running the Covid response portfolio.

He has a huge appeal with younger Japanese voters, including a Twitter following of more than two million users, and  he stands out in Japanese politics as a senior player willing to break ranks on issues in what is a largely conservative and consensus-driven system.

But some in the LDP feel that at 58, he is too young for the role as premier. He also has a tendency to say what he thinks, even if it goes against the party stance.   

The former internal minister Sanae Takaichi, launched her challenge on a conservative policy platform, aimed at strengthening Japan’s security, and working towards a strong post-Covid economic recovery.

An ardent nationalist, Takaichi has also courted controversy with her continued visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, a war memorial in Tokyo which has been criticised by both China and South Korea as glorifying war criminals and presenting a “revisionist” attitude to the Second World War.

"I do this as a Japanese citizen to express my respect and thanks”, she told reporters when challenged recently on the shrine visits.

Takaichi has so far distanced herself from statements issued by Japan in the past apologising for its wartime aggressions across Asia, while at the same time breaking ranks with some in the LDP to criticise China’s treatment of the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang province.

LDP leadership contender Sanae Takaichi/ photo wikimedia

The LDP has always seen China as an economic partner, and one not to be provoked if at all possible. Issues like democracy in Hong Kong, the South China Sea, or Taiwan, are often quietly overlooked in favour of a more transactional trade-based relationship.

But a new generation of lawmakers emerging in the party appear increasingly uncomfortable with Beijing’s demands of some economic partners to ignore various human rights issues. 

The same new lawmakers also seem more comfortable challenging the will of various LDP factions, the deeply conservative groupings which have guided the party through the last few decades.

But despite the politicking and the polls, the actual selection of the LDP leader will not be made by the voters, but by just 383 lawmakers, and 383 rank-and-file members of the party.

The LDP has been in charge of Japan for all but two brief periods since its formation in 1955. Since that time, it’s only been out of power for six years. By any measure that’s a remarkable record, but not one that all Japanese are proud of.

The party’s utter domination of the political scene has been criticised by many as warping Japanese “democracy”, but the LDP points to its continued support from Japan’s 126 million voters as the ultimate vindication, and the Japanese public seem to largely find favour with the party’s near-glacial approach to reform or significant political change.

But whoever leads the country into the next election, the LDP will likely lose its two-thirds super-majority in the Lower House, as the voters will this time send a strong message of disapproval over a Covid response that fell at many hurdles over the past year.     

So, what's next in the LDP leadership race?

  • Campaigning for the LDP leadership election starts this Friday, Sept. 17. Votes are counted on Sept. 29.
  • The top contenders of the race are currently Fumio Kishida, Sanae Takaichi and Taro Kono.
  • The popular former defence minister Shigeru Ishiba, has for the moment decided to stay out of the race.
  • The winner of the LDP leadership race is expected to replace Suga as premier of Japan, due to the party’s Parliamentary majority.
  • The new prime minister will face a pandemic that continues to rage across Japan, with lockdowns and other measures in play, and a domestic economy in crisis.

What happens next?

  • Once a new LDP leader has been elected, parliament will elect the country's next prime minister. The candidate who wins the majority of votes cast by the upper and lower houses of parliament will take the top job.
  • The new premier will form a new cabinet and a party reshuffle should occur sometime in early October.
  • Parliamentary terms for MP’s in the lower house expire on October 21, meaning an election will occur on a Sunday, before the end of November.


-Asia Media Centre