LDP election prospects hinge on vaccination push

The Yomiuri Shimbun

This is part of an ongoing series examining behind-the-scenes political moves concerning COVID-19 vaccines.

The Liberal Democratic Party has started to step up efforts to help Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga achieve his goal of having every elderly person in the nation vaccinated against the novel coronavirus by the end of July.

Motoo Hayashi, the party’s acting secretary general, made that clear in a meeting with the secretary-generals of all party factions at LDP headquarters on May 6, a weekday sandwiched between Golden Week holidays.

“There are places where relations between local government leaders and medical associations are bad,” Hayashi told them, “Depending on the situation, you’re going to have to give it an extra effort. I want you to find out what is happening on your home turf.”

To facilitate a smooth rollout of vaccines, Hayashi asked that House of Representatives members hear requests from municipal governments in their respective constituencies, and that House of Councillors members do likewise from organizations that support them.

It was unusual for the LDP to mobilize its lawmakers through its factions.

The instruction for Hayashi to make the request came from party Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai, a supporter of Suga. Having heard from news reports that it would be difficult for many local governments to complete vaccinations of the elderly by the end of July, Nikai gave the order to Hayashi, saying, “Is that really so? Make the party check it out, too.”

Visits by party lawmakers to their home areas are also aimed at encouraging them to prepare for a lower house election that will be held no later than this autumn.

Fumio Kishida, who heads his own faction, was not exempted from this duty.

In mid-May, Kishida, who was formerly the LDP’s policy research council chairman, met with Hiroshima Mayor Kazumi Matsui at the Hiroshima city government office.

The Hiroshima prefectural government had been widely known for being ahead of the curve in the coronavirus fight, including using PCR tests to find asymptomatic people. But the number of new infections suddenly surged in early May, creating such a dire situation that a state of emergency was declared.

In the midst of the crisis, Kishida, whose constituency is located in central Hiroshima City, asked for the meeting with Matsui. Kishida wanted to know what he could do to help in line with the request from Hayashi to the LDP factions.

Matsui explained to Kishida that he had asked the central government to expand assistance for private medical institutions that were handling vaccinations. “I will make sure the right people in the government know,” Kishida promised.

Kishida, who lost to Suga in the LDP presidential election held in autumn last year, has expressed an intention to run in the next election at the end of September, when Suga’s term expires. Still fresh in everyone’s memory is the LDP’s defeat in a re-held election in April for an upper house seat from Hiroshima Prefecture. For that reason alone, there is concern within his faction. “If vaccinations in Hiroshima City are greatly delayed, the heat may come down on our chairman,” A mid-ranked faction member said.

Kishida knows what is at stake. Speaking at a factional group made up of 10 lower house members who have been elected up to three times, Kishida said, “The vaccination issue always comes up when I walk around my constituency. Is it not the biggest focus of interest among the public? I want you to be armed with everything you need to know for the election.”

The Tokyo metropolitan assembly election will be held in July, and the lower house election in autumn at the latest. In Tokyo’s Nagatacho district, the nation’s political nerve center, the summer will quickly transform into a season of politics.

It can be said that the success or failure of the vaccination program is a make-or-break issue for the LDP. Since the start of the Suga Cabinet, public perception of the government’s response to the novel coronavirus and Cabinet approval ratings have fallen almost in lockstep with the worsening situation of the pandemic.

As such, LDP members have become particularly sensitive to public reaction.

On May 21, the secretary-generals of the various LDP factions conveyed the findings of their respective hearings with local governments and support organizations to Taro Kono, minister of state for regulatory reform who is responsible for the vaccination program.

After the meeting ended, Kono was about to leave with a bundle of papers of the findings. Then an anxious Tsuyoshi Yamaguchi, secretary-general of the Nikai faction, caught up to him and took back his document.

What made him do that? Kono is known for speaking openly, and if he made public the findings, it was possible that it would not only lead to distrust from local government heads, but also invite criticism from the public.

In early May, Yoichi Takahashi, who was an adviser to the Cabinet Secretariat, drew backlash when he expressed the number of coronavirus infections in Japan as “ripples” on his Twitter account.

Nikai was furious and blurted out, “Who is Takahashi?! Go warn him.” Suga, upon hearing about the rant, called a lawmaker close to Nikai and in a way of appeasement, said, “I will issue the warning to him.”

However, once the vaccination rollout got going in earnest, Nikai said confidently to aides, “Japan is a serious country. Both the central and local governments will do it right. Just watch.”

Opposition parties are of the hope that grilling the government and ruling bloc over vaccinations will resonate with voters.

“The vaccination chaos is a man-made disaster caused by the Suga Cabinet.” That’s what Jun Azumi, Diet Affairs Committee chairman of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, wrote in large letters on a whiteboard in a Diet building room in mid-May.

In a Yomiuri Shimbun public opinion survey conducted in early May, the Suga Cabinet had a disapproval rating of 46%, which surpassed the approval rating (43%) for the first time in three months.

This is seen as stemming from rising frustration in delays in vaccinations, in addition to the declaration of a state of emergency and subsequent extension.

CDPJ leader Yukio Edano stepped up his criticism of Suga, saying, “He has no idea how to manage a crisis.”

However, it was the CDPJ that demanded during Diet deliberations late last year that the government tread carefully when it came to approving COVID-19 vaccines. Even so, the party stepped up criticism over the delay in vaccinations at the end of the Diet session, saying it was a “government blunder.”

There is concern about this smoldering within the party. “Voters may lash out at our ‘metamorphosis,’ which could affect the election,” a veteran CDPJ member said.

To what extent will vaccines make it to the public? No doubt that will play a major role in determining the outcome of the lower house election.