The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the main acronym of the Japanese Legislative, ends this Wednesday (29) the process of choosing its new leader —probable successor to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga— amidst a scenario of uncertainty.
With his popularity shaken, Suga announced on September 3 that he would not run for re-election to head the LDP. In practice, this also meant giving up, less than a year after taking over, the leadership of the third largest economy in the world.
After the abrupt decision, four candidates launched themselves to preside over the acronym, which, as it has a majority in the lower house of Parliament, should designate the winner of the race for prime minister. The person in charge of the vaccination campaign against Covid-19, Taro Kono, former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and former Ministers of Internal Affairs Sanae Takaichi and Seiko Noda are contesting the position.
The campaign started on the 17th. To win, you must win at least 50% of the 764 votes in dispute. Half of them (382) come from party lawmakers, who each hold one vote. The other half is determined by the members (1.13 million in all), whose votes are distributed according to a system of proportional representation.
If no candidate wins at least 50% of these votes, a second round is held between the top two. In this case, 429 votes are up for grabs, the same as 382 from parliamentarians, plus 47 from local representatives of the party. The results should be known this Wednesday morning (Brasilia time).
According to a survey by Kyodo News news agency, Kono and Kishida are favorites to compete in a second round. Paulo Watanabe, a doctor in international relations from Unesp and a professor at the São Judas Tadeu University, says that female leadership is unlikely.
“The LDP is one of the most conservative parties and chooses its leaders after many years of ‘testing’ in politics”, he explains. “If one of the candidates is elected and becomes prime minister, it will be a big surprise, even though they both have political careers and leadership experience.”
Popular, the Vaccination Minister is a favorite among younger legislators and members. Kishida, on the other hand, who heads the most liberal division of the acronym and is running for the post for the second time, garners support from senior lawmakers — but there are those who point to a lack of greater public appeal.
Takaichi, for her part, is the candidate supported by former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and attracts votes from the party’s nationalists, while Noda, the last to enter the race, has struggled to gain a foothold.
One of the reasons for the blurring of this election, according to Kyodo News, is the fact that the party’s internal divisions have allowed its members to vote freely. Still, according to Watanabe, Kishida is more likely to win, as these groups signal greater support for him.
The current scenario is different from the election that took Suga to power, when he received support from the main sections to succeed Abe, who resigned due to health problems.
The current prime minister was chosen to complete the term of his predecessor, which would end this month. With unpopular management, in recent months Suga has seen approval ratings dehydrate — from 60% at the beginning of the year to less than 30% — largely due to the management of the pandemic.
Even the Tokyo Olympics did not capitalize on their government. The competition ended with Covid infections on the rise, driven by the delta variant, and healthcare system overload. New restrictions were adopted and, since the end of August, cases have been decreasing.
One of the main factors that weighed on popular discontent was the Japanese government’s delay in starting the vaccination campaign. The immunizations against Covid began to be applied in the country on February 17, more than a month and a half after several developed nations began their campaigns.
At that point, the United States already had 12% of the population on at least one dose, and the United Kingdom, 24%. In Brazil, 2.5% were partially immunized, according to what was compiled by the platform Our World in Data.
Upon announcing his departure, Suga highlighted the scenario of cases — which were only beginning to fall — as a reason not to dispute the election. “An enormous amount of energy would have been needed to deal with the pandemic and carry out presidential campaign activities for the party.”
He sought to make a continuity government, preserving most of Abe’s ministers and policies, but a firmer stance was expected in relation to the fight against the pandemic, according to Watanabe. Still, the restrictions adopted to contain the virus shook the Japanese economy.
This, by the way, is one of the main reasons of concern for the Japanese, according to opinion polls, which show that economic policy should be the top priority of the next president. So the candidates, according to Kyodo News, spent hours clarifying how their responses to the coronavirus would differ from those of their rivals and Suga.
Another challenge ahead is the general election, which will take place later this year, as the mandate of the Lower House of Parliament ends on October 21st. The Prime Minister can dissolve the House and call early elections, which must take place within 40 days of the dissolution date.
Watanabe points out that this is a relatively common practice for the incoming prime minister to test his popularity — Abe has done this at least twice. “The point is that Abe is an extremely popular politician, and currently the LDP doesn’t have any [candidato] in this profile.”
Japanese newspapers, citing LDP executives, say a possible dissolution would take place in mid-October, with the general election scheduled for November 7 or 14. The latest projections suggest that the legend should retain the lead but could lose an absolute majority, which would weaken the future leader.
Watanabe agrees, but points out that the party still reflects the wishes of the population, despite being in power for many years. “In the past, when the opposition [Partido Democrático do Japão] was elected, there was great popular rejection”, she recalls.
The professor also explains that, even though it does not have an absolute majority, the acronym is used to needing to be supported by smaller subtitles. “It is a very strong party in Japanese politics, which makes the opposition fragile and not cohesive.”
Meet the candidates and their proposals
Taro Kono, 58
Responsible for launching the vaccination campaign in Japan, he served as Minister of Foreign Affairs and Defense and is close to the current prime minister. Polls indicate that he is favorite for a spot in an eventual second round.
A critic of nuclear energy, Kono wants to boost the use of renewable sources and end generation based on fossil fuels as soon as possible. Nuclear reactors in Japan are nearing the end of their useful life. In social matters, she favors same-sex marriage and that couples keep different surnames, as advocated by Japanese feminist movements.
Like the other candidates, it welcomes Taiwan’s proposal to join the free trade agreement called the Comprehensive Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.
About Covid-19, Kono argues that it is the only candidate capable of making progress in responding to the pandemic, trying to capitalize on its experience ahead of the vaccination campaign.
Fumio Kishida, 64
A former chancellor and deputy from Hiroshima, he was considered the likely heir of Shinzo Abe, but he came in second in the internal vote for the party’s leadership, in large part due to his low ranking in polls. This time, it can reach a second round.
Regionally, it considers a viable option to acquire a military capacity to attack enemy bases, as North Korea has been increasing the pressure with its nuclear program. It also supports a parliamentary resolution to condemn China’s abuses against the Uighur minority in Xinjiang — which Beijing denies — and calls for an adviser to be appointed to monitor the situation in the region.
The candidate sees nuclear power in Japan as an important option to ensure a stable and affordable supply as the country strives to reach its goal of neutralizing carbon emissions by 2050.
To improve the response to Covid-19, Kishida urges the establishment of a new government agency to oversee health crisis management and support national development of vaccines and drugs against the coronavirus.
Sanae Takaichi, 60
A disciple of Abe and former minister of internal affairs, she belongs to the most conservative wing of the party and has already opposed allowing couples to keep different surnames.
It promises to establish policies to address China’s technological threat and strengthen the economy. He advocates boosting military spending and calls for laws to prevent the leakage of sensitive information to Beijing. It also condemns the human rights abuses committed by the Asian power.
On the controversy of her visits to the Yasukuni shrine, seen by critics as a symbol of the militarism of Japan’s past, for honoring 14 leaders convicted of war criminals, she cites freedom of religion and says she intends to continue attending the site even if it is elected.
Takaichi also proposes, on the energy issue, the development of small nuclear reactors as part of a national project to help Japan generate the energy it needs without emitting more greenhouse gases.
Seiko Noda, 61
A critic of Abe and former minister of internal affairs, he tried to challenge the former prime minister in the race for the party’s leadership in 2015, but fell short of the 20 supporters needed to run. This time, she struggled to achieve the cut, but the possibility of being elected is remote.
She has been a consistent advocate of Japan’s need to address its declining birth rate and rapidly aging population, while championing women’s empowerment.
Noda has already stated that half of his ministerial cabinet would be female, despite having more conservative stances on women’s rights.