In Japan Election, Fourth in Polls Could Mean First Past Post
(Bloomberg) -- In Japanese politics, you can run in fourth place and still come out on top, as Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga could demonstrate. He’s trailing three other potential premiers in the latest opinion poll and still appears set to keep his spot as ruling party chief in a looming vote.
Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party has an election for its leader on Sept. 29 and Suga was the public’s fourth-most popular choice in a survey carried out by the Nikkei newspaper Aug. 27-29. He trailed Administrative Reform Minister Taro Kono, former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba and former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida.
Suga is limping into the race with his support rate at record lows following scandals and criticism of his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. With him at the helm, the LDP risks losing a lot of seats in a general election that must come before the end of November. But the party that has ruled Japan for about 61 of the past 66 years often places its internal dynamics over public opinion, and its bosses have shown no intention of breaking with their consensus choice of Suga.
“The strongest probability at this point is for Suga to win re-election,” Junichi Makino, chief economist at SMBC Nikko Securities, said in a report Friday. While only one serving prime minister has ever lost a party leadership election, there is still a possibility of a change of direction if a more popular candidate emerges and major factions allow their members to vote at will, rather than as a bloc, he added.
There is no indication yet that a change is coming. Suga represents a continuation of the country’s ultra-easy monetary policy and attempts to keep the economy going as far as possible during the pandemic.
One of the party’s key factions has thrown its weight behind Suga ahead of the vote, while other groups that backed him in 2020 have as yet shown no sign of producing their own candidate. Due to its dominance in parliament, the LDP leader is assured of becoming prime minister.
Kishida and Ishiba ran against Suga a year ago and lost in a landslide. Kono, who heads the government’s vaccine program, is considered a top lieutenant and could see his chances of eventually taking over in the future damaged if he embarrasses Suga by challenging him now.
“As long as Suga is seeking re-election, he’s unlikely to run,” Shigenobu Tamura, a former LDP staffer turned political commentator, said of Kono.
Powerful LDP factions -- each with its own leader and agenda -- swiftly coalesced behind Suga in 2020. They will have less weight this year than last because the party is set to hold a full election, dividing the 766 votes equally between the parliamentary party and the rank-and-file membership, by contrast with the lawmaker-focused vote in 2020.
But the Nikkei poll showed Suga was the most-favored candidate for premier among LDP supporters, even though overall public approval for his cabinet was at 34%, only just above the 30% level seen as a danger zone for Japan’s leaders.
Among Suga’s potential rivals, only Kishida has thrown his hat into the ring so far, last week unveiling a platform in which he vowed to rejuvenate the party by appointing younger officials. He also promised a quick injection of government spending to prop up an economy struggling with the country’s worst-yet wave of virus cases.
Former Internal Affairs Minister Sanae Takaichi -- who may become the second woman ever to formally run -- is also pushing for the job. Ishiba is still considering his next move, he said in a video released online.
Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi, at times one of the party’s most popular politicians, has lined up behind Suga. The two have worked closely on bolstering the country’s climate change targets. In a news conference last week, Koizumi said: “Let them defeat him if they can. I want him to face the leadership election with indomitable resolve.”
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.