Political maneuvering begins for LDP presidency

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Intraparty maneuvering is heating up in the run-up to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s election to choose its leader, which is to be held by the end of September when Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s term as current party president expires.

Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and LDP Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai were quick to announce their support for Suga’s reelection, showing signs that a leadership struggle is in the works.

But it remains to be seen whether Suga can solidify support for himself, as further government mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic could intensify public criticism of his administration.

“Let’s support the Suga Cabinet, support the party, and work to advance the nation,” Hiroyuki Hosoda, leader of the largest LDP faction with 96 Diet members, said at a regular faction meeting on May 13.

Though some members of the faction are dissatisfied with Suga, the group acts in concert with Abe — who is seen as its de facto leader — and it steers toward supporting the prime minister.

“The [party] presidential election was held just last year,” Abe said on a BS Fuji TV program on May 3. “Should we make another change after one year? Suga should continue as prime minister.”

Regarding the Hosoda faction’s siding with Suga, a party member said, “In return for creating the momentum for being reelected, [a member of] the Hosoda faction will likely get the post of LDP secretary general in the next personnel reshuffle.”

Nikai, who heads the fourth-largest faction with 47 members, clearly showed his support for Suga at a press conference on May 11. “Public expectations and support for the prime minister are growing steadily,” Nikai said.

That followed Nikai’s previous expression of support for Suga at a press conference on March 29, leading a veteran party member from another faction to comment, “It’s as if he is competing with Abe for who can show stronger support.”

The Nikai faction was quick to get behind Suga in the party presidential election last autumn, and is believed to have created the momentum leading to Suga’s victory. For his efforts, Nikai, who has served as secretary general since August 2016, was allowed to keep his post. The faction seems to be betting on the same outcome this time.

On the other hand, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso, whose own faction has 53 members to tie it for second-most with the Takeshita faction, has not revealed whom he will support in the election.

Most speculate he will get behind Suga. “Aso will surely march in step with his ally Abe,” said a mid-level party member.

Despite falling approval ratings for the Suga Cabinet, support within the party for him to continue as prime minister is building — largely because there are no strong candidates for a successor.

Former LDP Policy Research Council Chairperson Fumio Kishida, who lost to Suga in the LDP presidential election last autumn, has long expressed a willingness to make another run. However, Kishida is taking a hard look at whether the situation is right to declare his candidacy. “The nation is in crisis now,” Kishida said at a press conference on May 13. “We must work together and unite.”

Former LDP Secretary General Shigeru Ishiba also ran for LDP president last autumn, but has faded recently and has been unable to find a way back into the limelight.

Public dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of the coronavirus has grown, leading to a wait-and-see approach for some. “Until we see which way public opinion leans, we don’t know what will happen,” a former cabinet minister said. If the government’s missteps continue, moves within the party to distance itself from Suga could accelerate.