With the scheduled announcement of new LDP leadership lineup on November 1 and the new Cabinet a day later, the networks and print media are atwitter with the race to replace Prime Minister Koizumi. The PM has vowed that he will step down as president of the LDP when his term of office expires next September. In the aftermath of Mr. Koizumi’s following through on his threat to dissolve the Diet this past August, no serious commentator doubts his intent to keep his promise as regards his term of office. The prime minister has also promised to support to the candidacy of the LDP member who acquits himself or herself best over the next 10 months, thereby setting up an intense competition for both the most visible postings and the most onerous tasks.
Such competition for the favor of a sitting prime minister is a brand new phenomenon. Japan has never had a tradition such as the Mexican dedazo, where the leader of the country indicates (dedazo means “to point the finger”) his choice of a successor. In postwar Japan, prime ministers have had no say in the selection of their successors, if only because the end of most terms in office have come as the result of a forced resignation or death. Indeed, many prime ministers have been succeeded by their political enemies within the LDP, a sort of alternation of governance most other nations have realized through a change in the ruling party.
Should Koizumi succeed in enforcing his own form of dedazo, he will have created a significant new instrument of prime ministerial power, a mighty bequest to his successors in their battles against the return of LDP factionalism.
What is equally intriguing is that Koizumi has also managed to mandate--without significant protest--that his successor exhibit administrative competence and/or charismatic leadership skills. This is a startling requirement, given the LDP’s history of relying on numerical strength of faction, seniority and factional balance as guides for personnel decisions. As the formidable Sam Jameson explains, in a post to the Japan Forum:
Former Prime Minister Mori, head of the faction to which Shinzo Abe belongs, has said publicly that Shinzo Abe, 51, is still too young to become prime minister. In addition to nenko joretsu standards, choosing three consecutive prime ministers from the same faction (Mori, Koizumi, Abe) would ruffle feathers in the party. Yasuo Fukuda, 69, might be considered for a short-term prime minister if he, too, were not a member of the Mori faction.[The full thread on potential successors to prime minister Koizumi, including Sam Jameson’s comment, can be accessed here]
If you apply both the nenko joretsu and the factional considerations to predictions for Koizumi's successor, you wind up with Taro Aso, 65, who is five years older than Sadakazu Tanigaki.
I don't get the feeling that Aso inspires great enthusiasm among voters, however. If the LDP, despite its 296 seats in the lower house, feels it needs another henjin (strange person) to avoid losing control of the government in the NEXT (in 2009?) lower house election (an unlikely prospect, in my view), the old customs would go out the window…
Koizumi's warning that his support—that is his vote, the votes of the Koizumi Children and the votes of LDP members chafing under the yokes of the surviving faction leaders--will depend upon performance has given rise to wild speculation about Koike Yuriko and Takenaka Heizo--the one a political opportunist of the highest order, the other a neophyte--as black sheep candidates for the LDP presidency.
At present, Abe Shinzo is far ahead in the running for the next LDP presidency. His youth, rather than being a negative, projects an image of strength and durability. He is telegenic, well-bred and fairly handsome. He is adored by the American establishment. Poll after poll shows him with a commanding lead over other potential LDP party presidents.
However, it is not clear that Prime Minister Koizumi is comfortable with handing over the reins of party and government to Abe.
Koizumi is aware that by the end of his term, the relations between Japan and China and Japan and South Korea will be in tatters. He long ago promised that if elected prime minister, he would visit Yasukuni Shrine on August 15--a promise he has heretofore not kept. He will fulfill his promise next year. He feels he must. He probably feels that it would be in the country's best interest for the next prime minister to be just as committed to not visiting Yasukuni. Abe, as everyone knows, is a Yasukuni enthusiast.
Major questions remain also about Abe's administrative or leadership skills. While capable of projecting an aura of command, he has only a weak record as a commander. His only posting of significance, his terms as secretary-general of the LDP, ended somewhat ignominiously.
A further demerit, one that has attracted little attention so far, is Abe's electoral district. Abe is the representative for Yamaguchi district #4. While not deeply rural district (the prefecture's largest city, Shimonoseki, is inside Abe's domain), it is still part of the inaka, the hinterland that had produced every single post-war prime minister before Koizumi. Abe’s district is indeed part of the old Choshu han, the homeland of a vast number of prime ministers, including the very first (Ito Hirobumi) and Abe’s grandfather (Kishi Nobusuke).
Koizumi is very aware of the pernicious relationship between a rural electoral base and the misallocation of national wealth. He attacked the postal savings system and highway construction cabal for this very reason. He has consistently chosen urban and suburban residents as his advisors and confidants. It seems inconceivable that he would turn over control of the LDP, only a year after the party managed to sweep up every seat but one in Tokyo, to the same rural forces that dragged the nation to near ruin.
My bet therefore is that Koizumi anoints not one of the four princes (Abe, Tanigaki, Aso or Fukuda Yasuo) but the person I believe will be the next foreign minister, Yosano Kaoru. By agreement with the Mori faction, Abe will succeed him, with Koike succeeding Abe in 2011 or 2012.
But then again, a week is an eternity in politics.
President George W. Bush comes a' visitin' next month. The U.S. embassy will probably arrange a reception where President Bush meets with future leaders. As for what will happen when President Bush actually steps out into the meet-and-greet with members of the Diet who imagine themselves candidates for the LDP party presidency, I am afraid the result will look a lot like this (add your own sound effects):