Japan loses a prime minister

Japan’s prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, has been in the job for not quite a year – admittedly an eventful one in Japan, with the Tokyo Olympics and the continuing fight against Covid-19. But that was enough for him; on Friday, he announced that he would not recontest his party’s leadership later this month, leaving a new leader to take over before this year’s general election.

When Suga (then aged 71) took office, replacing Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, Shinzo Abe, I commented that the Liberal Democratic Party “appears to be reverting to type.” Abe had been the exception; most LDP leaders have been colorless and ageing functionaries, few of whom lasted more than a couple of years.

Now the party’s factions will have to find another one, ready to fight an election that has to be held before the end of November. Not that the election looks like posing any great difficulty: the LDP has a commanding lead in the polls, even before factoring in the advantage it gets from a malapportioned electoral system. Its opponents are hopelessly divided, with four main opposition parties spanning the political spectrum and none of them consistently polling in double figures.

The leadership election is scheduled for 29 September. Candidates so far include Fumio Kishida, a moderate and former foreign minister who lost to Suga a year ago; Taro Kono, currently vaccine minister (maybe we should have one of those?), who is Suga’s preferred choice; and Sanae Takaichi, a hard-line former internal affairs minister who has Abe’s support.

There’s at least some prospect of variety there – Kono at 58 is rather younger than average, and Takaichi would be the country’s first female leader. But the LDP remains a deeply conservative outfit, more interested in its internal patronage networks than in serious thinking about how to address Japan’s problems. Its electoral supremacy gives it an immunity from public pressure than parties across the democratic world can only envy.

That wasn’t enough to save Suga, whose own popularity ratings remained poor, especially in light of a recent surge in Covid cases. On the other hand, the Olympics were a success and Japan’s death rate in the pandemic is still one of the lowest in the developed world. There are many worse countries that one could pick on for political dysfunction.

Nonetheless, a lack of real electoral competition exacts a price. A Japanese expert, Tsuneo Watanabe, put it well (as quoted by the New York Times): “at this moment, there is no strong alternative to the L.D.P., and that is a failure of the Japanese political system.”


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