Suga-style politics 7 / Suga faces intraparty concerns, voter criticism

This is the seventh installment in a series reviewing the first six months of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s administration.

In February, the Liberal Democratic Party instructed all its member lawmakers to send out 1,000 reply-paid postcards to their respective constituencies, to gauge voter opinion ahead of the next House of Representatives election.

One veteran secretary of an LDP lower house member was surprised by how many replies from their district in the Tokyo metropolitan area contained comments critical of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who is also president of the LDP. A conspicuous number of respondents said things like, “We’ve had enough of Suga” and “Give us a new prime minister already.”

The postcards had been mailed to party members and ardent supporters of the LDP. “Even our own members responded quite critically,” the secretary said with a mounting sense of alarm. “I have no idea whether the party will be OK in the lower house election.”

Suga’s term as LDP president expires at the end of September. The term for lower house members is set to end on

Oct. 21. If he hopes to remain in power, Suga needs to prove successful in both the lower house election and the LDP presidential election, which loom in six months.

To get through the LDP presidential election unopposed, it’s important to first win the lower house. If the prime minister dissolves the house, he can call an election early. Timing is of the essence, and Suga has been searching for the right moment.

Asked about dissolution of the lower house at a press conference on March 18, Suga said, “My term of office ends in September. I’ll think about [dissolution] by that time.”

Some within the LDP believe that Suga misspoke and that instead of “September,” the party president term, he meant to say “October,” the lower house term. A high-ranking party member speculated that the prime minister’s comments were a Freudian slip that revealed his intent to dissolve the lower house sometime before the presidential election.

A veteran Diet member said, “As long as Suga’s Cabinet still has a reasonable approval rate, there’s no need to replace [Suga].”

But apprehension over the Suga administration has been smoldering with the party. Some say that if approval rates were to plummet, sentiment would quickly shift toward finding a “post-Suga” successor.

Poll: Kono as No. 1

In March, Taro Kono visited the leaders of all factions within the LDP to solicit thoughts and cooperation on the nation’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout, which fell under his charge as administrative reform minister.

Specifically, Kono asked them to keep their ears to the ground and report back if they heard anything that needed improvement.

The behavior was out of character for Kono, who is known more as a doer and a teller than a coordinator.

“He was never the kind of person to do that sort of thing before. He must have begun making a great many calculations,” said one faction leader who was given an acute impression of Kono’s ambition to become the next LDP president.

In a Yomiuri Shimbun poll conducted on March 5-7, asking which LDP politician was best suited to become the next prime minister, Kono garnered the highest approval rate at 26%, far ahead of Suga’s paltry 3%.

Both men broke into politics in Kanagawa Prefecture and enjoy a close relationship. They regularly convene a meeting in the Diet dorm for lower house members representing Kanagawa, along with Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi, who was also elected from the prefecture.

A mid-tier member of the Aso faction says that if Suga seeks reelection, Kono will not run for the LDP presidency, a view that is widely shared. But should Suga not run, Kono might very well emerge as the top candidate for party president.

One complicating hitch for Kono is that he is a member of Aso’s faction, which has yet to reach a consensus on hitching their wagon to him for the party election. After all, many faction members have acquired a deep-rooted distaste for Kono, given his propensity for independent action and provocative comments.

Kishida and Ishiba lack presence

Meanwhile, Fumio Kishida and Shigeru Ishiba, who squared off against Suga in the last presidential election in September, have been struggling.

Kishida, chairperson of the LDP Policy Research Council under the previous administration, has remained out of a job and largely out of the public eye since the election. Despite shining on the campaign trail — delivering a crisp and cogent performance that prompted some to approvingly remark that he had “grown up” — since the election, Kishida has slipped back to his old self, according to a source in his inner circle.

Kishida has even failed to make his presence felt in Hiroshima’s No. 3 constituency as a string-puller coordinating the selection of a house candidate along with Komeito, a coalition partner of the LDP. He has been told that he “needs to have a close connection with Komeito if he wants to be prime minister.”

Ishiba, a former LDP secretary general, was forced to resign as leader of his own faction over the fracas that arose when he ran for LDP president.

Crucial 6 months for Suga

In early March, Suga met LDP Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai face-to-face in a conference room in the dormitory for Diet members.

“Don’t worry about it. Keep doing what you need to do,” Nikai told Suga, referring to the wining-and-dining scandal involving Tohokushinsha Film Corp., a broadcasting company that employs Suga’s eldest son.

Nikai was one of the first to endorse Suga for LDP president. Suga still makes a habit of meeting with Nikai nearly once a month, as an uncommon gesture of appreciation.

Nonetheless, there have been whispers that Nikai, ever the seasoned politician, may be inclined to support Executive Acting Secretary General Seiko Noda instead, should Suga stumble. Suga stands on the shoulders of the five factions that supported him during the LDP election. But even now, he has yet to find firm footing.

After regaining the LDP’s control of the lower house in 2012, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe went on to win six consecutive national elections, all the while steadily consolidating his power.

By contrast, Suga inherited Abe’s prematurely vacated office, and is serving out the remainder of Abe’s term.

Unlike Abe, Suga has yet to experience a lower house election as prime minister. In this respect, Suga’s administration is still seen as merely an “interim” government in many eyes.

If Suga hopes to shed his interim status and assemble a bona fide administration, he will have to win the two upcoming elections.

With six months under his belt, it’s the next six that will count.