The LDP in Search of a Center: Kingmaker Nikai’s Stock Falls as Suga Loses Support


Just a few months ago, LDP heavyweight Nikai Toshihiro was at the height of his career as kingmaker, having engineered the smooth transfer of power to Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide. Now the unity of the ruling party is at risk as the stock of both leaders plummets.

Last fall, Liberal Democratic Party Secretary General Nikai Toshihiro seemed securely ensconced in his role as the nation’s kingmaker and second-in-command, having engineered the smooth transfer of power from Prime Minister Abe Shinzō to his successor, Suga Yoshihide. Now, with Suga’s approval rating in sharp decline and Nikai under attack from rival factions, the LDP finds itself on the brink of a crisis.

Hemorrhaging Popular Support

In January 2021, as the COVID-19 pandemic continued its relentless spread, Prime Minister Suga reluctantly yielded to public and expert opinion and declared a second state of emergency. By that time, however, popular support for his cabinet had entered a tailspin. More than anything, Suga’s belated declaration highlighted the emergency facing his own struggling administration.

In its first two months, the Suga government’s approval rating plummeted by roughly 20 percentage points. The government’s coronavirus response was probably the biggest reason for this decline. But missteps and misjudgments by LDP Secretary General Nikai Toshihiro, Suga’s second-in-command, compounded the problem. Meanwhile, Suga’s declining approval is further eroding Nikai’s influence within the LDP. This is the dynamic behind the crisis that threatens to engulf the ruling party.

Emblematic of this disastrous pas de deux is the notorious steak dinner of December 14. Amid government warnings against gatherings of more than five people during the “critical three weeks” spanning mid-December and the New Year’s holiday, Suga and Nikai enjoyed dinner for eight—including a number of bigwigs and celebrities of similarly advanced age—at an upscale steakhouse in Tokyo’s Ginza district.

Suga offered an apology of sorts, saying, “In the sense that it invited misunderstanding among the public, I sincerely regret it.” Nikai, for his part, was unrepentant, insisting, “We didn’t do it for the purpose of dining together. We wanted to have an exchange of views. It’s not like it was a total waste of time.” This defiant attitude merely poured gasoline on the flames.

Apart from Suga himself, the diners all appear to have been regulars at a year-end party hosted annually by Nikai. Suga, it is said, joined the gathering at Nikai’s invitation. Sources close to Suga defended the prime minister’s decision by explaining that he could hardly refuse an invitation from Nikai, to whom he owes his position.

Nikai was the first of the LDP’s faction leaders to throw his support behind Suga after Prime Minister Abe unexpectedly announced his resignation in August 2020. By convincing other major factions to do likewise, he assured Suga’s victory in the September LDP by-election, averting a potentially damaging power struggle.

Be that as it may, one cannot but marvel at the fact that neither politician anticipated what a terrible impression their dinner party would have on all the Japanese citizens who had obediently refrained from convivial gatherings as the year drew to a close. Did no one in their orbit see fit to warn them against such an ill-conceived outing? If not, that speaks to serious problems at the organizational level.

Rumblings within the LDP

Even before the steak dinner affair, dissatisfaction with Nikai’s leadership had been building within the LDP.

One reason for the growing disapproval was a spate of political scandals involving members of Nikai’s faction (officially known as the Shisuikai) over the past year. House of Councillors member Kawai Anri was arrested and tried for vote buying in the 2019 upper house election. House of Representatives lawmaker Akimoto Tsukasa was indicted on charges of receiving bribes in connection with a casino resort project. (Although both have officially left the LDP, they have yet to resign from the Diet, and they remain “special members” of the Nikai faction.) Yoshikawa Takamori, formerly secretary general of the Nikai faction, was indicted without arrest for accepting bribes from a major egg producer during his tenure as agriculture minister. Yoshikawa resigned from the Diet last December for “reasons of health” soon after allegations of bribery surfaced.

Here, too, Nikai has made things worse by refusing to acknowledge the problem or his own responsibility as faction leader and LDP secretary general. His response to reporters’ repeated questions about Yoshikawa’s resignation was simply, “You’d have to talk to the people involved.”

Ruthless Expansion

According to Nikai’s detractors, these scandals are the price of a ruthless and reckless drive to expand his own faction. Much like former Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei, Nikai’s revered mentor, the secretary general regards numerical strength as the key to power, and he has acted on this belief by ushering all and sundry into his faction. His position as LDP secretary general, which he has held since 2016 (the longest tenure ever), gives him tremendous leverage in this regard, since he controls the decision-making process behind the LDP’s official backing of candidates and distribution of campaign funds. Critics within the party complain that Nikai has become increasingly heavy-handed in his exercise of these powers.

The most conspicuous example, perhaps, was his reaction upon learning that Hayashi Yoshimasa, an LDP upper house member, was planning to challenge the LDP incumbent in one of the single-seat lower house districts in Yamaguchi Prefecture. To be sure, the LDP traditionally favors the incumbent, but the bigger problem appears to have been the fact that a member of a rival faction (that led by former Foreign Minister Kishida Fumio) was challenging a Nikai faction veteran, former Minister of Education Kawamura Takeo. At a local rally held to launch Kawamura’s reelection bid, Nikai showed up with 19 members of his 47-member faction and blustered, “If someone’s spoiling for a fight, he’ll get one.” One Nikai faction member even suggested that Hayashi should be expelled from the LDP for “anti-party behavior.”

Meanwhile, Nikai himself has been setting the stage for similar intraparty battles in a number of single-seat districts, including one currently represented by the member of a rival LDP faction. Such maneuvers, disgruntled lawmakers complain, illustrate Nikai’s single-minded factionalism and ruthless expansionism.

A Pair of Wire Pullers

As politicians, Suga and Nikai resemble each other in a number of key respects. While the majority of LDP lower house members are either the children of politicians or former bureaucrats, Suga and Nikai built their political careers from the ground up. Both started out as secretaries to LDP lower house members and then served in a local assembly—Yokohama in Suga’s case, Wakayama Prefecture in Nikai’s—before making a bid for the House of Representatives. Both are old-school LDP politicians skilled in backroom negotiations, with little use for public grandstanding or media theatrics.

Both also have deep ties with the Japanese tourism industry, and these connections doubtless helped propel the Go To Travel campaign, a program to promote domestic tourism—hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic—through generous government subsidies. Those same industry ties help explain why the Suga cabinet was so slow to suspend the campaign even amid the virus’s resurgence.

A major difference between the two politicians is that Nikai bears the stigma of having bolted from the LDP in 1993 under the leadership of Ozawa Ichirō. In 2003, he rejoined the LDP along with other members of his much-diminished party. In time, he was able to overcome the stain of apostasy and emerge as a party heavyweight.

One reason he has been able to do so is that he has no ambition (as he has publicly asserted) to become prime minister himself. In LDP politics, anyone who sets himself up as a contender for the top spot is vulnerable to cabals (as illustrated by the plight of Ishiba Shigeru, whose repeated bids for the LDP presidency have left him largely isolated). Nikai instead chose the path of the kingmaker. In successive party leadership elections, he has sided early on with the leading candidate (first backing Abe to the hilt, then coming out for Suga) to ensure a clean victory and a minimum of internecine strife.

From the standpoint of Prime Ministers Abe and Suga, Nikai was an ideal choice for the number-two spot; having no designs on the prime minister’s office, he could be counted on to serve the party and its leader loyally. From Nikai’s standpoint, the arrangement allowed him to wield great power behind the scenes without taking public responsibility for political setbacks.

Suga’s popular image, similarly, is that of the consummate behind-the-scenes operator (although those who know him say he has had an eye on the highest office since his youth). As Abe’s devoted chief cabinet secretary, he earned a reputation for getting things done and received high marks from LDP politicians and civil servants alike. The public had high hopes for him as well. Why, one might ask, has his stock fallen so dramatically since he formed his own cabinet? Suga himself appears to be struggling with the same question.

Perhaps, after all, the biggest weakness of the current administration is the fact that both of the top two leaders are behind-the-scenes operators. Nowadays the ability of top government and party leaders to communicate effectively and persuasively with the public is pivotal to a cabinet’s success, and it is all the more important during crises like the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wrath of the Right

Another major vulnerability of the Suga government is its China policy. Nikai, who prides himself on his pipeline to the upper echelons of the Communist Party of China, is widely viewed as one of the LDP’s most enthusiastically pro-Chinese members. (Indeed, Washington is said to be more than a little wary of Nikai for this very reason.)

Suga, for his part, is a realist with little interest in ideological matters. As such, he has placed top priority on the economic side of Japan-China relations and has been reluctant to confront Beijing over Hong Kong or other issues tangential to that relationship. In this respect, he presents a sharp contrast to Abe, whose hardline stance toward Beijing secured him the undying loyalty of the LDP’s right wing—a key component of the support base that swept Abe to power and kept him there for almost eight years.

From the beginning, members of this bloc were deeply distrustful of Suga and Nikai’s conciliatory approach toward China. Their dissatisfaction finally came to a head over the Suga cabinet’s refusal to halt a program that loosened pandemic-related restrictions on business travelers entering Japan from China and South Korea, among other countries. The government finally reversed its position and on January 13 this year, but only after LDP Diet members had begun grumbling openly about the Suga cabinet’s obsequiousness toward China and South Korea.

What’s Next for the LDP?

The rapid decline in support for Suga, paired with Nikai’s waning influence within the LDP, could have serious and lasting repercussions. In addition to jeopardizing Suga’s political plans, it could herald an extended period of internecine warfare within the ruling party.

The LDP presidential election is scheduled for September. In addition, the party faces the certain prospect of a House of Representatives election on or before October 21 this year, when the current members’ terms expire. Suga, it is said, hopes to ride out the current crisis, clinch reelection as LDP president, and then call a general election in the fall. But many LDP lawmakers are worried that Suga’s unpopularity could cost the party seats in the House of Representatives.

Looking ahead to the two by-elections scheduled for April 25, in Hokkaidō and Nagano, the signs are not auspicious. The LDP has already opted not to contest the Hokkaidō seat vacated by the disgraced Yoshikawa. In sharp contrast to Abe, who quickly consolidated his power with an aggressive and successful electoral strategy, Suga is struggling to hold the fort.

Unless the dynamic changes, a “dump Suga” movement could easily gain traction within the LDP in advance of the September party election. But who will lead the charge? At this point, there is no clear favorite, and Nikai’s ability to unite the party behind a winner has been severely compromised.

Nikai Toshihiro’s reign as LDP kingmaker may well be at an end. In the absence of such a powerbroker, the LDP faces the risk of a protracted interfactional war. This is the price, after all, of eight years of complacency under Abe’s one-man rule.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, at right, and Nikai Toshihiro during a meeting in Tokyo on November 25, 2020. © Xinhua News Agency/Kyōdō Images.)

LDP politics