TIT FOUR presidential candidates of the Liberal Democratic Party in Japan (LDP) come from different corners of the big party tent. Takaichi Sanae (photo, left) is a nationalist who wants to become the first female prime minister, but opposes married couples keeping separate surnames. Kono Taro (photo, bottom) is the American offspring of a political family; it supports same-sex marriage and renewable energies. Kishida Fumio is originally from Hiroshima and aspires to a new form of capitalism. Noda Seiko is the mother of a disabled son. She promised to be a champion of the vulnerable.
It’s an unusually eclectic cast for the staid old party. It’s also an unusually unpredictable contest: in the face of a revolt by younger members, most of the party’s faction leaders have pledged to allow their members to vote as they see fit. The outcome will remain unknown until the votes are counted on September 29, unlike last year’s election where faction leaders previously closed ranks and gathered support for Suga Yoshihide, the current party leader and Prime Minister.
Yet the thrilling leadership contest – by the standards of Japanese politics – is also a distraction from a deeper malaise in the country’s democracy. Japan has avoided the populism and paralysis that has beset many Westerners. But its stability is not the result of broad support for the status quo. “Our democracy is facing a crisis, because people’s confidence in politics is shattered,” said former foreign minister Kishida, entering the LDP race.
Apathy has become rampant. Voter turnout has fallen (see graph). The Pew Research Center, a pollster, found in 2018 that 62% of Japanese people think elections don’t make a difference. At the start of this year, more voters did not support any party (41%) than the LDP (38%) or the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), main opposition party (7%). The fundamental weakness of the opposition means that, as Sone Yasunori of Keio University in Tokyo puts it, “the LDP the presidential election is the real game, not the general election, ”which comes and goes sometime in November.
The LDP has dominated Japanese politics since its founding in 1955. It has ruled uninterruptedly for decades, leading scholars to call Japan an “unusual democracy.” The reality was more complicated than a one-party state: fractional groups functioned as parties within the LDP. And for years the Japanese left was powerful enough to control the government.
In 1993, a group of LDP the deserters helped form a coalition that toppled the party for the first time; they reformed the electoral system to facilitate greater competition between parties. The coalition quickly collapsed, but in the years that followed a new party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), became a competitive center-left force, eventually overthrowing the LDP in 2009. It seemed to herald the emergence of a two-party system with more policy debate.
Yet the DPJ faltered in power, alienating voters, infuriating bureaucrats and upsetting Japan’s main ally, America. He was unlucky to be in power when an earthquake hit northeastern Japan in 2011, triggering a deadly tsunami and nuclear fusion in Fukushima. His unstable handling of the crisis made voters suspicious of the change of hands.
After losing against the LDP in 2012, the DPJ fracture. With its coalition partner, Komeito, the LDP won the last six national elections and established firm control over both houses of the Japanese Diet. The remains of DPJ merged into the CDP in 2017, but the new party proved incapable of mounting a serious challenge. It currently holds 113 seats in the lower house at the LDPis 275.
The LDPThe clenched management of the pandemic seemed to open a window, however small, for more serious political competition. Japanese voters are used to running in droves when their frustration overflows. They have done so on several occasions in local competitions this year, most recently in August when they elected an opposition candidate for mayor of Yokohama rather than one backed by Mr Suga. During the summer, some LDP members feared going from their current qualified majority to having to broaden their coalition to stay in power. “It’s scary,” one admitted.
When the unpopular Mr. Suga resigned last month, the LDP hoped this would help appease the public who, despite their frustration, remain wary of radical change. It seems to be working. The opposition parties, which hoped to make some headway before his resignation, are now clamoring to be noticed in the media. Support for LDP has increased by nearly 10% in some polls since resigning; the Tokyo stock market rose in anticipation of a new leader.
Mr Kono, a former foreign and defense minister who now serves as the government’s vaccine czar, seems to represent the best prospect for a significant change in style, if not substance. It is at the top of the polls among the general public. He built a reputation as a maverick ready to challenge the LDP‘s entrenched lanes. Younger party members tend to support him.
Yet even Mr. Kono was forced to face the realities of LDP Politics. At a press conference announcing his candidacy, he softened his opposition to nuclear power and downplayed his openness to allowing heiresses into the imperial family, two issues that had been symbols of his free thought. Elders of the party remain wary of him, however, and would prefer the more flexible Mr. Kishida.
Mr Kono’s best chance lies in securing an absolute majority in the first round of the LDP elections, where parliamentarians and the party base have the same weight. If he does not, he will have to win in a second round where the votes of the members of the Diet will have much more weight. There, the outcome will likely depend on power struggles and internal party rivalries. Mr. Kishida, probably second, could still win. (Ms. Takaichi is seen as having an outward chance to move forward; Ms. Noda has virtually none.)
The first task of the future winner will be to lead the party in the elections to the lower house. While the LDP may lose a few seats, the losses will likely be fewer than expected in the party with Mr Suga at the helm. But unless the LDPThe next leader may connect with the audience, he or she may not outlast Mr. Suga. Voters will have the chance to deliver another verdict in the upper house election looming next summer.■
This article appeared in the Asia section of the paper edition under the title “Tourner en rond”