Japan yearns for charisma as race to replace Suga heats up

The race to replace Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is gathering momentum after the veteran politician chose not to run for re-election as president of the leading Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) when it holds elections at the end of the month.

The four main contenders include 58-year-old vaccine tsar Taro Kono, 64-year-old former defence minister Shigeru Ishiba, and former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, also 64. Sanae Takaichi, 60, a conservative nationalist with the support of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, announced her bid on Wednesday, becoming only the second woman after current Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike to challenge for the role.

A general election must be held by November 28.

Given the pronounced sense of malaise surrounding the LDP’s main rival, the Constitutional Democratic Party, it is likely that whoever replaces Suga will also go on to win the election.

For Lully Miura, head of the Yamaneko Research Institute, the election will probably be too soon for Sanae Takaichi. The former internal affairs minister “has only a small chance of winning the LDP presidential race. This is her first time running. She is also yet to show her quality as a leader, so she is unlikely to gather as many votes as Kono or Ishiba”.

A new generation of LDP Diet members, Miura believes, are likely to lean towards the younger of the main candidates, Taro Kono. “But what complicates the situation is the local party members’ votes, which constitute half of the first ballot. These may go to the better-known, stable candidate. So if Ishiba runs, he will certainly get a large number of votes.”

Whoever secures the party presidency will influence the direction of Japan’s foreign policy at a time of increasing tension with regional neighbours over territorial disputes and cybersecurity issues.

“Fumio Kishida is a dove in foreign policy terms,” Miura said, “whereas Ishiba is a comparative hawk. Kono also is hardly a dove, even aggressive in some historical issues related to the Republic of Korea. Takaichi is the most hawkish among them. She has promised to give Japan strike capability against China and the DPRK [North Korea].”

Suga’s departure follows a year of severe challenges.

The longtime lieutenant to predecessor Shinzo Abe took office a year ago. Since then, the coronavirus pandemic has surged, heaping pressure on a government determined to push ahead with the delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics despite public opposition. The Paralympic Games came to a close on Sunday.

Many accused the prime minister of weakness in the face of pressure from the International Olympic Committee to host the event. His critics argued that his insistence on forging ahead as planned endangered public health.

After a troubled start to the vaccine rollout, just 32 percent of the country had received at least one shot of the coronavirus vaccine by the start of the Games.

While the event was held largely without spectators, and the Olympic bubble itself remained mostly incident-free, the Games coincided with an outbreak of the Delta variant in host city Tokyo and a huge rise in daily cases nationwide.

As political scientist Masamichi Ida points out, the Suga administration inherited many of these issues from Abe, who resigned on September 16 last year. “However, we should also acknowledge,” Ida added, “that it is during Suga’s term as leader that the public’s disregard for state of emergency measures – i.e. calls not to go out – has become a conspicuous trend.”

Low bar

Local election losses in Nagano, Hiroshima, and Hokkaido compounded Suga’s failure to tackle the pandemic. By August, his public approval rating stood at a low of 29 percent, below the 30 percent mark generally considered terminal for Japanese prime ministers.

When the LDP candidate lost last month’s mayoral election in Yokohama, Suga’s home turf, his position became untenable.

Even as the prime minister insisted that he would stay in the job to see out his work combatting the pandemic, party heavyweights forced his resignation, fearing embarrassment in the election ahead.

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