PYEONGTAEK, SOUTH KOREA – Last weekend, opposition parties swept three Diet seat elections in what many are calling a blow to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and a bellwether for things to come. In principle, those characterizations are correct, but not in the way some may think.
The easy assumption to make is that the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s inability to win any seats in the by-elections reflects a growing disdain towards the Suga administration among the ill-defined “Japanese public.” Some will argue that what happened on Sunday represents a shifting political landscape where the opposition may have a fighting chance in the forthcoming Lower House election. However prevalent those assertions may be in the media space, it does not mean they are accurate.
To understand the current state of play in Japanese politics, it is necessary to pull back the curtain, dive further into the internal machinations of the LDP and frame the discourse through the issues influencing the behind-the-scenes politicking taking place.
First, we need to understand what actually happened on Sunday. Frankly, the LDP’s inability to pick up any seats in the by-elections was unsurprising; after all, two of those seats were only up for election because of highly publicized scandals involving LDP lawmakers caught buying votes and receiving bribes. Those seats were ripe for the picking and the opposition parties took advantage of the opportunity.
As for the third seat up for grabs, it was basically a matter of dynastic succession. The previous incumbent, Yuichiro Hata of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, was the eldest son of former Prime Minister Tsutomu Hata. When Yuichiro passed away suddenly, his younger brother Jiro ran in the by-election and won. Given the dynastic element in play, the LDP had no realistic shot at the seat.
Since the outcome of the three elections was essentially a foregone conclusion, it should hardly be seen as a shock to the Japanese political world.
Also, the loss of Diet seats has no impact on the overall legislative power balance. The LDP-Komeito ruling coalition still commands a majority in the Upper House and a supermajority in the Lower House. Thus, the outcomes did not affect how the ruling coalition can legislate its policy priorities.
Looking at the polls, things are relatively stable for the LDP. Opposition parties are still polling in the single digits, while the LDP remains comfortably in the upper thirtieth percentile. The administration, while hardly popular by Japanese polling standards, is in the fortieth percentile, comfortably above the public opinion “danger zone.”
Given all this, how might this election have affected the political state-of-play?
For the rank-and-file LDP members, this is about the time that concern turns to worry. They know that they face reelection campaigns within the next six months. They also know that prospects are not looking good for a miracle turnaround associated with the Olympics.
Making it through the games unscathed is the hope; achieving a world class event is looking more and more like it will take a miracle. Knowing this, the lower ranking members of the LDP will be putting the pressure on their faction heads and LDP executives to take steps toward righting the ship ahead of the upcoming Lower House election.
Meanwhile, those faction heads and LDP executives will also be calculating possible moves. One must always remember that despite the LDP’s attempt to put forward the image of a unified party, a fundamental truth is that there is a constant state of tension behind the scenes. Someone is always jockeying for position and seeking an opportunity to elevate his or her standing within the LDP hierarchy.
Institutionalized factionalism and an ability to change party and government leadership through internal mechanisms rather than public elections means that leadership changes can be fairly swift and sudden.
In Suga’s case, his ascension to prime minister was the product of LDP factionalism and his future rests solely within the hands of LDP faction heads. If any of those faction heads decided that they had a better candidate to lead the party come September when the party’s presidential race occurs, this weekend’s election results and growing concern among the rank-and-file would be ammunition for them to use. However, the operative word is “if.”
There are only two things supporting Suga right now.
First, the public is still generally apathetic about the opposition. Opposition parties have failed to articulate unique policy platforms related to the main issues at hand and the prospect of them forming a united front against the LDP is unlikely. At a point when many Japanese will be loath to invite further instability into their lives, the devil they know may be better than the devil they don’t.
Second, there are few political leaders that would wish to inherit the problems that Suga faces. No sane LDP politician would try to oust the prime minister before the Olympic Games and have to own the risk associated with it. There are also the unresolved issues related to revitalizing the economy while managing the COVID-19 pandemic.
So, was the result of the by-elections really a blow to Suga? Sure, but that is because LDP executives are happy for him to continue taking all the blows for this, COVID-19, the Olympics and other issues until party leaders can figure out the best way forward heading into the Lower House election.
Perhaps they will be happy to let Suga continue weathering the storm. Perhaps someone else will decide that inheriting the problems of the day is worth a shot at the nation’s top job. That is still to be determined.
How about a “bellwether” for things to come? The by-elections did offer an important data point in terms of the LDP’s calculus for the party presidential race and timing of the Lower House election. It is safe to say that no other LDP heavyweight is itching to execute major moves until September, which will be the final deadline for the LDP to implement whatever collective political strategy it settles on in the coming months.
In this regard, the political state-of-play is status quo until the Olympics, at which point the games will begin in more ways than one.
Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He previously served in the Japanese government as a Mansfield fellow.
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