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Will Izumi Kenta Be Japan’s Next Prime Minister?

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Will Izumi Kenta Be Japan’s Next Prime Minister?

A CDP government looks more likely than ever – even if it’s still a low-odds proposition. 

Will Izumi Kenta Be Japan’s Next Prime Minister?

Izumi Kenta attends a campaign rally for the Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP), June 26, 2022.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Noukei314

Mandated by Japanese election law, three lower house single-member districts were scheduled for a by-election – special elections that are held when vacancies occur – on April 28. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which had held all three seats, lost before the ballots were counted.

Out of the three districts at stake, the LDP could only put up a candidate in one. The resignation of the incumbents in Tokyo-15 and Nagsaki-3 – the former resigned due to his involvement in a bribery scheme, and the latter did the same after being implicated in the ongoing slush fund scandal – was what forced a by-election in the first place. There would have been considerable backlash if the LDP dared to field new candidates.

Although the party was able to find a former Finance Ministry official to run in Shimane-1, due to his late predecessor’s legacy – tainted by controversies surrounding his relationship with the Unification Church and his role in orchestrating the slush fund scandal – winning was not a cakewalk, even in a district that has reliably supported the LDP since 1996.

The largest winner on election day was the Constitutional Democratic Party. The CDP swept all three by-elections, leaving the LDP in a distant second in Shimane-1, and posting an even stronger showing against Nippon Ishin in Nagasaki-3.

Exit polls show that the CDP was able to appeal to a significant portion of the “non-affiliated” voters – people who have less attachment to a particular political party. Such voters are the largest bloc in Japanese politics. If the CDP can encourage the non-affiliated to vote in a similar way in future elections, it would possibly enable them to flip close elections, which may be swayed by a couple of digits.

Sunday’s victory must have also reassured CDP leader Izumi Kenta, whose tenure will expire in September. Although Izumi himself has been in office for more than two decades, because he is relatively young – 49 years old, where the average age of cabinet members was recently reported to be 65 – and lacks party executive experience, he has been treated as a lightweight by party elders.

Saito Renho, who represents the progressive wing of the CDP, and was the former leader of the CDP’s predecessor party, has been publicly criticizing Izumi’s messaging skills, alluding to his resignation in one instance. Another party elder, Ozawa Ichiro, former head of the Democratic Party of Japan, also called for sacking Izumi. Ozawa has been vocal that his party leader is not serious about defeating the LDP.

However, despite the pressures that Izumi has been facing from his former bosses, the fact that he has maintained his party’s position as the largest opposition and the preferred alternative to the LDP, was manifested by the by-election results.

Izumi has been working to set the foundation for a change in government, which Izumi was a part of when the LDP lost power in 2009. Modeled after Britain’s Shadow Cabinet system, he had reinvented the so-called Next Cabinet, announcing the potential candidates who would enter a future CDP administration – including Prime Minister Izumi. The idea of the Next Cabinet is not anything new, since it was adopted during the DPJ period, but it was not installed during his immediate predecessor Edano Yukiyo’s tenure. Although not widely reported – possibly due to the party’s poor messaging  – Izumi’s “Cabinet” gathers to discuss potent issues that concern the public at large.

Izumi has also been open to foreign audiences, taking fact-finding trips abroad in an effort to polish up his and his party’s foreign policy credentials. Izumi is looking to reassure the public – and to some extent the world – who have raw memories of the DPJ government’s sloppy management of foreign affairs. DPJ Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio’s promise to the Okinawans that a controversial U.S. base would be relocated from the island was a notable blunder.

Also, Izumi has invested considerable effort to “moderate” his party’s platform and has been willing to rely on elder politicians who were prominent figures inside the DPJ administration, whose government the conservatives still criticize as a “nightmare.”

The by-election has shown the CDP a pathway to victory – and perhaps even a path for Izumi to become prime minister. Suppose the party can reinforce the image of the LDP as irreparably corrupt – a central theme of Izumi’s recent messaging – and successfully create a head-to-head environment with the LDP through negotiations with the other opposition parties. In that case, there appears to be a good chance for a rare change in government in Japan.

However, such a path to victory would not be an easy task. For the CDP to prevent the emergence of a fractured field of candidates, which would certainly work for the benefit of the LDP,  they would have to convince Nippon Ishin, which has been more hostile to the CDP than any other rival party. Also, the problem of how to secretly cooperate with the Communist Party of Japan is an issue. Although aligning with the CPJ would assure a reliable voting bloc across the nation, their divisive reputation would possibly alienate conservative and rural voters – a concern that was backed up by statistical evidence produced by the CDP itself.

Izumi is convinced that if a snap election were to be held today his party would trounce the LDP – or at the least significantly reduce their seats. However, the governing party does not have to hold an election until July 2025, more than a year from now. Will the electorate still remember then why they were angry a year before?

The LDP may stage a show in the run-up to the LDP presidential election in September. The party might force Kishida to resign and then elect the first female LDP president and thus prime minister – either Kamikawa Yoko or Takaichi Sane. That would deprive the CDP of its thunder. Who would be able to oppose the first woman to lead the country?

The biggest takeaway from the by-election is that the public will not hesitate to punish the LDP electorally for its wrongdoings, although the party has been allowed to stay in power without interruption for more than a decade. If there were to be a change of government in the next general election – whether that would take the form of an independent CDP government or a CDP-led coalition with non-LDP parties – it would be because the LDP was rejected, not due to public yearning for a CDP government.

Democratic government turnovers take place when the governing party mishandles an issue, but history tells us that a paradigm shift may occur as a result. If it was not for the Great Depression, for example, there would have been no New Deal, which redefined the idea of social contract in the United States.

At no point has a potential Izumi administration been more likely than it is now, although the actual chances remain marginal. However, if that scenario materializes Izumi would inherit an opportunity to prove that Japanese politics is not entirely broken and show the world that he is a politician who “warrants more attention,” as opined by the Economist.