Off to the races: LDP presidential election campaign begins

With the Liberal Democratic Party presidential election now set for Sept. 29, a number of challengers to LDP President and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who has said he intends to stand for re-election despite record-low poll numbers, have started to emerge.

Three key LDP figures — former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso and LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai — have said they will continue to back Suga. The three are also leaders, officially or in practice, of party factions with a combined total of 196 members, a slight majority of LDP Diet members.

However, while LDP veterans such as Abe, Aso and Nikai have fewer worries about keeping their seats in an upcoming general election, many younger LDP Diet members face tough campaigns and are concerned about whether Suga continuing as prime minister would help or hurt their re-election chances. They wonder whether it’s time to dump Suga and get someone who is more popular with the public.

At the moment, three LDP veterans have officially stepped forward, and three more potential challengers are being closely watched.

Fumio Kishida

Kishida, 64, is a nine-term representative of the Hiroshima No. 1 district in the city of Hiroshima and is emerging as Suga’s most serious rival. He is also the head of his own LDP faction, which has 46 members. A former foreign and defense minister, Kishida has also chaired the party’s policy research council and Diet affairs committee.

In the September 2020 LDP presidential election, he ran and lost to Suga, and subsequently did not receive a post in either the LDP or the Cabinet. But he remains close to many key LDP figures, including Abe, who once said he would be fine with Kishida as prime minister.

However, Kishida is not popular with the public and has consistently scored much lower than other LDP figures such as Shigeru Ishiba or Taro Kono in polls on who people would prefer to be prime minister. And while Abe seems to like him, Aso, who heads a 53-member faction, was quoted by Jiji Press in July of last year as having told a colleague that Kishida was OK for a peacetime leader, but was unsuited to the troubled COVID-19 era.

Kishida had earlier proposed that low-income households receive a ¥300,000 stimulus payment from the central government to help with financial difficulties caused by the pandemic. But the idea ran into opposition, and in the end a proposal backed by coalition partner Komeito, which saw ¥100,000 provided to all residents, was adopted. This failed policy initiative, and Kishida’s lack of public popularity, raised concerns in the LDP about his leadership abilities.

In his 2020 book “Kishida Vision,” the former foreign minister paints himself as a man who had a middle-class upbringing but experienced racism while living for a while in New York as a child, making him determined to realize a society without socioeconomic gaps and a country that pursues policies that benefit the middle class. He also favors strong regional revitalization schemes, and on foreign policy issues, he sees Japan as a bridge between the United States and China.

Liberal Democratic Party policy chief Hakubun Shimomura speaks to reporters at the LDP headquarters in Tokyo on Aug. 19. | KYODO

Hakubun Shimomura

Shimomura, 67, represents the Tokyo No. 11 district, which includes the city’s Itabashi Ward, and was first elected in 1996, the same year that Suga entered the Diet. A party stalwart and a member of the Hosoda faction, which is de facto led by Abe, Shimomura has spent much of his career in LDP posts, including chair of the election strategy committee in 2019 and, since last year, chair of the policy research council. In 2012, he became education minister and in 2013 he served as the Tokyo Games minister under Abe.

As education minister, Shimomura pushed for the further globalization of Japanese universities. His son has a learning disability and graduated from the University of Arts London, and he became impressed with the way the school easily accepted people with disabilities. In a 2013 New York Times interview, Shimomura said that the British education system is open to a broader range of people and talents, and that he sought the same kind of system for Japan.

Shimomura is a member of a number of groups espousing conservative or right-wing causes such as the All Party Parliamentary Tibet Support Group.

In a book on his policy vision released in April, he emphasized the international trend of moving from prioritizing economics to foregrounding happiness. He has also suggested that discussion take place on the need for an emergency clause in the Constitution, based on Japan’s experience with the coronavirus.

Despite his long service to the LDP, Shimomura is not thought to be that popular among rank-and-file members and may have problems securing the 20 signatures from LDP lawmakers necessary to stand for election, because Abe supports Suga.

Sanae Takaichi | REUTERS

Sanae Takaichi

Takaichi, 60, represents the Nara No. 2 district, which includes the city of Tenri. She’s an eight-term Diet member and a close political and ideological ally of Abe.

A graduate of the Matsushita Institute of Government and Management, Takaichi spent 1987 working in the office of congresswoman Patricia Schoeder, a liberal Democratic member of the House of Representatives for Colorado.

Takaichi was first elected to the Lower House in 1993, running without party affiliation. After spending time in a couple of smaller parties, she joined the Liberal Democratic Party in 1996. Initially, she became a member of the predecessor of the 96-member Hosoda faction, whose official leader is former LDP Secretary-General Hiroyuki Hosoda.

She held the position of state minister for Okinawa and the Northern Territories during Abe’s first term as prime minister from 2006 to 2007, and in 2011 Takaichi left the faction and has remained an unaffiliated member since. Nonetheless, during Abe’s second period as prime minister between 2012 and 2020, Takaichi served in a number of posts including minister of international affairs and communications, science and technology minister and as chair of the party’s policy research council.

Takaichi announced her candidacy in the September issue of the Bungei Shunju magazine and outlined her basic policy stance, in which she called for investing in crisis management and growth. Crisis management investment, she said, means mitigating risk in three areas: cyberspace, natural disasters and natural security.

Growth investment, she added, would mean placing further emphasis on strengthening Japan’s technology sector, including robotics and biotechnology. On energy issues, Takaichi, a strong supporter of nuclear power, called the development of small, underground nuclear reactors a practical solution for Japan’s energy needs and something that the government should immediately invest in.

In the October issue of Hanada magazine, Takaichi also called for creating a “national defense forces” to replace the current Self-Defense Forces and revising the Constitution to make that happen.

However, as Takaichi is not a member of any faction, there are questions as to whether she will receive the 20 signatures needed to run. While Abe initially encouraged her candidacy, he continues to say he will support Suga.

Three others have been mentioned in the media over the past few weeks as possible candidates, though none has formally declared they will enter.

Former LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba at the Diet in Tokyo on Monday | KYODO

Shigeru Ishiba

Ishiba, 64, is an 11-term Lower House member representing the Tottori No. 1 district, which includes the city of Tottori.

Ishiba has served in a number of high-profile posts, including defense minister as well as the key LDP positions of secretary-general and chair of the policy research council. He is a long-time rival to and vocal critic of Abe, and he ran in last year’s presidential election, losing to Suga.

Although Ishiba is popular among many rank-and-file members and has been voted the public’s top choice to replace Suga in recent polls, he is less popular among his fellow LDP Diet members. Forced to resign as head of his own 17-member faction after last year’s LDP presidential election loss, Ishiba has so far indicated he will not be running in the September race.

Taro Kono | KYODO

Taro Kono

Kono, 58, represents the Kanagawa No. 15 district, which includes the cities of Hiratsuka and Chigasaki. A graduate of Georgetown University, Kono has served as foreign minister and defense minister under Abe, and is currently Suga’s coronavirus vaccine rollout czar and minister in charge of administrative reform.

Kono is a member of the Aso faction and has not yet indicated whether he will challenge Suga. But it would be difficult to do so without the green light from Aso, who has so far indicated he will continue to support Suga.

The Liberal Democractic Party’s Seiko Noda speaks during a interview in December 2020. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI

Seiko Noda

Noda, 60, is a nine-term lawmaker who represents Gifu No. 1 district in the city of Gifu. She is currently executive acting secretary-general of the LDP and has previously served as internal affairs minister and minister of state for consumer affairs. She is unaffiliated with any faction.

Although Noda has often tried to run in past presidential elections, she has never managed to obtain the minimum 20 supporters needed, and she has not formally declared she will run next month. Without factional backing, she could once again find it difficult to secure the necessary 20 signatures.