Yoshihide Suga’s exit sets off fight to reshape Japanese politics

Japanese politics & policy updates

Yoshihide Suga’s abrupt resignation as Japan’s prime minister has set off a battle to succeed him that will pit an increasingly frustrated younger generation of politicians against an old guard fighting to maintain the status quo. 

Analysts say the outcome of the leadership race could be a turning point for Japanese politics if the Covid-19 crisis and the threat to the ruling Liberal Democratic party’s long grip on power trigger a contest that is not decided by traditional factional politics.

The LDP will choose its next leader on September 29 through an electoral college, with its 383 MPs holding half of the votes and regional party officials making up the rest. Whoever wins will lead the party in a general election that must be held by November 30 and is expected to focus on the pandemic.

Taro Kono, 58, and Fumio Kishida, 64, two former foreign ministers, have emerged as the leading contenders, with the former expected to usher in a new group of younger political leaders who have been shut out of senior cabinet posts and the latter seen as the continuity candidate.

Kono, the current vaccines minister who also served as defence minister under Shinzo Abe, Suga’s predecessor, has not declared his candidacy but has indicated he is weighing a bid. A graduate of Georgetown University and a former intern for US Senator Richard Shelby, Kono is fluent in English, popular and outspoken, with a big social media presence and more than 2.3m followers on Twitter.

But colleagues are wary of Kono’s short temper and independent approach to policy, which have earned him the widely used nickname “weirdo”, an epithet he has publicly acknowledged.

Taro Kono is popular with the Japanese public and is expected to appoint a younger generation of politicians to senior ministerial positions © REUTERS

In his new book, Move Japan Forward, Kono argues that the country needs to respond to a rising China not just by strengthening its alliance with the US but through a more robust regional framework in security and economic ties.

An increasingly assertive China is expected to be near the top of the agenda for whomever succeeds Suga, but is unlikely to be a focus of the campaign that will probably be dominated by Covid-19 measures.

“With the general election right around the corner, there will be a tendency to choose a candidate with strong public appeal especially among the younger members of the LDP,” said Atsuo Ito, a political analyst and former party official.

Suga is likely to support Kono’s bid, according to a person close to the situation. But finance minister Taro Aso, who heads the 53-member faction to which Kono belongs, has expressed reservations.

“Mr Aso is against Mr Kono’s bid since he will be forced into retirement if Mr Kono becomes prime minister,” Ito said. Many analysts expect Kono to replace the long-serving 80-year-old as finance minister and other top officials with younger party members.

Kishida is softly spoken and less popular with the public but surprised colleagues with a plan to change party rules that would lead to the removal of Toshihiro Nikai, the LDP’s powerful secretary-general, if he becomes leader. The bold move was an acknowledgment that Kishida also has to appeal to a younger generation, even if he is expected to retain many older colleagues if he becomes leader.

“Mr Kishida posed a challenge against Mr Nikai and that was well-received by others within the LDP. Until then, he was viewed as a nice guy, but indecisive, so the change shocked Mr Suga,” said Takao Toshikawa, editor of the political newsletter Tokyo Insideline. 

Fumio Kishida stands in front of some microphones
Fumio Kishida, a former foreign minister, is seen as a continuity candidate © REUTERS

While Kishida’s 47-member faction has traditionally pushed for fiscal discipline, analysts say he has promised a massive economic stimulus package to address the pandemic in a bid to win support from the LDP’s biggest faction that is associated with Abe.

“If Mr Kishida wins and lasts for around three years, there is a possibility he will veer away from Abenomics and that is a concern for Mr Abe,” Toshikawa said, referring to the former prime minister’s economic agenda of monetary easing and flexible fiscal policy. 

Abe continues to wield power within the LDP, even after stepping down last year for health reasons. He is reportedly considering supporting a bid by Sanae Takaichi, a former internal affairs minister. Takaichi, 60, does not belong to a faction but is known to share Abe’s hawkish views on history and reforming the pacifist constitution to expand Japan’s military role.

Former defence minister Shigeru Ishiba, 64, who has support from the grassroots but little backing from parliamentary colleagues, has also said he is considering his options.

Corporate leaders are nervously following political developments, fearful that a return to the revolving-door premierships that were typical in Japan will drive away foreign investors encouraged by Abe’s economic revival programme.

One big concern is the future of Suga’s significant policy initiatives: the digital transformation of government and his pledge to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Executives stress that whoever becomes prime minister will need to have a longer term vision for the economy and industrial policy than Suga, that moves the country beyond the Abenomics era. 

“Abenomics worked very well in terms of achieving full employment and increasing household wages. Next up is how we can revitalise industries and businesses,” said Takeshi Niinami, chief executive of Suntory, the drinks group, who is also a leading adviser to the prime minister.

“We also need to discuss in-depth industrial policy such as semiconductors since a new situation of US-China tensions has occurred, which we did not discuss at the time of Abenomics,” he added.

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