My take on the LDP presidential election

Whoever wins the LDP presidential election is odds on to be the Japanese prime minister after Noda Yoshihiko. When Noda steps down is of course a different issue. If he is able to manage the rest of the crisis with China well, and puts into place a policy platform for the next 9 months that his party can get behind, then he may be able to make it all the way to next year, or even a double HOR-HOC election. Noda has indeed already signalled that he reserves the right (日) to make the decision for himself whether an election will be held “sometime soon,” given the incoherent “betrayal” of the three-party agreement when the LDP censured itself for passing the consumption tax.

Nevertheless, who wins the LDP election may also have a significant impact on what happens next, in terms of when an election is called, and what will happen in that election.

If Abe Shinzo wins then he will likely pursue a hard line against the DPJ and attempt to pressure them into an earlier election focusing on a perceived and imagined “weakness” in regards to dealing with China on the part of the Noda administration. Furthermore, Abe’s election could have an impact on both the LDP’s electoral fortunes (likely to be worse) and also the workability of an LDP-DPJ-Komeito grand coalition in the long to medium term. While there are many in the DPJ who are hawkish on foreign policy, most of these people, like Edano, Maehara, and Hosono (potential Noda replacements) dislike Abe’s social conservatism and lack of interest in administrative, economic and social issues.

Abe’s preferred post-election partner will be Hashimoto’s JRP rather than the DPJ and he will lose no sleep over not being able to work with the DPJ. (He is also unlikely to lose any sleep over the issue of Japan’s electoral constitutionality, not exactly being a big fan of the current Japanese constitution in the first place.) Of course, as soon as Abe realizes the entrenched interests he will have to stand up to to assist the implementation of the JRA’s agenda, then he may have to quickly become interested in issues other than China-baiting and constitutional revision/reinterpretation.

If Ishihara Nobuteru wins, he is likely to continue a hardish line against the DPJ, but will be mindful that he is the owner of the legacy of the “three-party accord” which might compel him to moderate his tone, especially in consideration of a post-election deal with the DPJ and so forth. He is flaky however, so no one can really be sure, however.

If Ishiba Shigeru wins then he will be the most likely to work with the DPJ in terms of passing the government bond bills to fund the budget, as well as any other legislation that they may see fit, including constitutional electoral adjustments. Interested in policy issues, Ishiba may even consider legislation that would take the wind out of the sails of the Japan Restoration Party before an election. Ishiba has the best links to the DPJ and it is not out of the question that Ishiba and Maehara (as the policy chairman, and as a possible successor to Noda) in particular may cooperate more faithfully both before and after the election on a variety of issues. The DPJ can live longer in a coalition with an Ishiba-led LDP and cabinet.

So what is the most likely outcome? (Yes, I am ignoring two candidates.)

The election works as such:

We have 199 votes for the MPs, one point each.

The 47 regional chapters together have 300 votes.

Each chapter was apportioned at least 3 votes, and the rest decided by internal party factors that I am not privy to, but in any respect it is not a strictly proportional distribution based either on population or paid up party membership numbers. Tokyo gets 16 votes, while even chapters with a few thousand members get at least 4.

Each chapter’s votes are allocated on the basis of the D’hondt method.

Before the “election season,” Ishihara Nobuteru was seen to be the favourite. He had pseudo-incumbency as the 2IC to Tanigaki’s deal with the Komeito and the DPJ over the consumption tax. He had support within the party’s MP groups, and enough popular recognition to ensure that he would contend for the “popular” chapter votes, or at least have more popularity than Abe.

Ishihara however may struggle to make it to the run-off that will almost certainly take place. His performance has been uninspiring and a number of his statements are hard to decipher or bordering on reckless. He has a past history of making quite astonishing gaffes. He has also not distinguished himself in any way or form from the other party contestants. It appears he is not well liked outside the main metropolitan areas even among the LDP and it is by no means guaranteed that he will beat out Abe in the “popular vote,” especially because the 300 votes are apportioned in a way that gives votes in the rural areas more impact. He also has lost support within the Diet members’ group and is trailing Abe in this respect. If Machimura bows out, then there is a possibility that Ishihara may still make it to the second round if the retiring party elder Mori directs his people to go with Ishihara, as has been suggested he might. The effect on the popular vote will be minimal perhaps of Machimura bowing out, as he is only likely to do well in Hokkaido, and may pick up a few votes only in the other regions.

Abe has the advantage of support of a few factions within the LDP’s Diet members’ group. His support among the rank and file is a little better than I would have thought (perhaps owing to the exodus of moderates from the LDP after 2009) but still not stellar. With the way the chapter votes are proportioned then he might still beat out Ishihara in that vote however, as areas outside cities carry more weight.

Ishiba has the advantage in the rank and file vote, but has only a weak support base among the factions as the “anti-faction” candidate.

Based on the information available about where the local chapters are trending, home field advantage, and who has the support of what faction, here is a prediction. Have a large bag of salt handy.

Ishiba will take about 130 votes in rank and file voting, Abe 82, Ishihara 77, Machimura 8, Hayashi 3.

Abe has 50 LDP Diet members lined up, Ishihara 40, Ishiba and Machimura 30, and Hayashi 20.

I am going to give the remaining 29 Diet members to Ishiba just because they may be sitting on the fence to see what the rank and file in the chapters want.

Ishiba will get 189, Abe 132, Ishihara 117, Machimura 38, Hayashi 23.

Ishiba will be some way short of the 250 needed for a decisive first round victory. The only chance for Ishiba to take this out in the first round is if Machimura drops out and Ishihara is identified by both the rank and file and Ishihara’s Diet supporters as a lost cause and switch to Ishiba at the last minute.  On the other hand, the Machimura illness may advantage Ishihara, and allow him to sneak into second place – I can see this going both ways. I will wait until Machimura’s situation is confirmed and there is some word with how this will affect the LDP Diet votes before assuming anything. I still predict Abe and Ishiba will face off in the run-off with Diet members only.

After this, I have no idea where to start in a prediction, other than they will be neck and neck at the start. Negotiating for positions and prizes, like the old-school LDP, is certainly possible.

That said, it’s still hard for me to see Abe winning here. Not only would this mean going against the preferences of the rank and file members of the LDP chapters, but I think it is clear for all that the electoral prospects, and for the management of a grand coalition with the DPJ, improves greatly under Ishiba. He is not discernibly less hawkish than Abe, thus not “weak-kneed,” and is more flexible and “realist” than conservative – possibly less publicly tainted by an explicit sense of being “Anti-Chinese” like Abe is. And while he is no liberal, Ishiba is more pragmatic on economic, social and administrative issues. He is unlikely to support to the hilt the reinvigoration of the “construction state” policy that that the LDP’s factions have identified as part of their next election platform. Of course, the LDP is not known as either principled or rational so there is no certainty that such common sense will prevail in the intra-party bargaining.

Abe’s election through LDP backroom politics could however be a god-send for the DPJ and/or the JRP. The Japanese public is disinterested in Abe’s social conservatism even if they are currently partial to a stronger foreign policy stance. It will be easy for the DPJ to shape the narrative around Abe as someone who lost a nation-wide democratic election (2007 HoC election, and quite badly), gave up the PM’s role in the meekest of ways after a disorganized and inattentive year in office, and even then was only the second most popular candidate from his party this time around. The narrative could be something along the lines of “We have learned a lot from our troubled three years in government – the LDP has learned nothing while in opposition” which could give the DPJ a boost in urban areas outside of the Kansai region. They will still lose their majority in the House of Representatives, but it could prevent an outright thrashing if they campaigned skillfully and drew up a coherent party platform.