Why is former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe throwing his weight behind Sanae Takaichi — a politician little known among the public beyond her conservative views?

Perhaps it’s because Abe genuinely believes former internal affairs minister Takaichi is the right person for continuity and has a shared vision for the country. Or maybe as the one who started womenomics, Abe thinks it’s high time Japan chooses a woman to run the world’s third-largest economy.

There is likely some truth behind both those motives. But it’s also a maneuver by the former prime minister so that the heavyweights of the Liberal Democratic Party can maintain control of the increasingly fluid political situation within Japan’s governing party.

The LDP presidential race, which formally began Friday, is becoming increasingly unpredictable because of the election’s format this time around, which gives substantial weight to rank-and-file votes that are more reflective of public opinion.

The race is tight, fought among Takaichi, former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, administrative reform minister Taro Kono and former internal affairs minister Seiko Noda. If opinion polls are any indication, Kono is by far the front-runner among the public — but some within the party are concerned that the reformist could usher in radical change and wreck the LDP’s well-established system.

The LDP presidential election has always been a numbers game. In the past, that game was played almost entirely within the confines of the party headquarters in Tokyo, but in this upcoming race, it is the LDP’s local chapters that stand to shape the outcome.

When the LDP’s sitting members of parliament cast their votes on Sept. 29, the party branch in each prefecture will gather and count all the ballots from rank-and-file members throughout the country. These branches will be apportioned an equal share of ballots as the party’s sitting parliamentarians. It is that parity in voting strength that has changed the calculus for LDP leaders.

That parity did not always exist; rather, the rules for the LDP presidential election have evolved over time. Originally, it was only sitting parliamentarians who could vote. If a candidate could not achieve a majority in the first round, it would go to a second round with only the top two vote-getters.

The two-round format has remained unchanged, but the party decided to incorporate some representation from the local chapters in 1978. It was not until 2014 that the LDP changed its rules to allocate an equal number of votes between parliamentary members and local chapters. This, many party members believed, would help ensure that local chapters’ voices are heard and help break the power that the LDP’s factions and elites have long held over the party. It should come as no surprise that the party’s secretary-general at the time was the reform-minded former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba.

The first time the new rules were used was in 2018, when Ishiba went head-to-head with Abe. In that election, the LDP heavyweights were unconcerned with local chapter votes because Abe commanded almost all the parliamentary-level votes and had a comfortable level of support from rank-and-file members.

The same was not true for the election last year. Party leaders understood the implications of the local chapter votes given Ishiba’s popularity with LDP members outside of Tokyo. In other words, they knew that if the local chapters were given an equal share of votes, it might have enabled Ishiba to win. What they did was reduce the number of local chapter votes to only three per prefecture for a total of 141 compared to the 394 votes for sitting parliamentarians. With voting heavily weighted toward members of the Diet, the LDP’s factions could guarantee a victory for Yoshihide Suga.

Then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe responds to questions at the Prime Minister's Office in Tokyo in September 2020. | KYODO
Then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe responds to questions at the Prime Minister’s Office in Tokyo in September 2020. | KYODO

The LDP could not continue to flout its own rules this time around, so the local chapters will have their equal share of votes. There is one catch though: The rules only apply in the first round of voting. If no candidate achieves a majority, the voting goes to a second round where each prefecture is only allotted one vote (for a total of 47).

So, how might this be influencing the presidential race?

First, it has disrupted the calculus for LDP parliamentarians — both the elites and junior members. The problem for them is that with half the votes residing at the prefectural level, they cannot guarantee that their preferred candidate will win.

Sure, theoretically a heavyweight like Abe can reach down to the LDP chapter in his home Yamaguchi Prefecture and basically instruct them to vote for Takaichi. But Japan has 47 prefectures broken up into nearly 300 districts for the Lower House alone. The inability to control the local chapter voting introduces uncertainty, which creates chaos and disrupts the LDP’s normal bargaining patterns.

One thing to understand about the LDP is that bandwagoning is common. Once it begins to seem that a candidate will be assured victory, others start to throw in their support, lest they be left out when the winning candidate starts doling out Cabinet postings or canvassing for policy agenda items.

Uncertainty makes bandwagoning difficult, which is in part why we see fractures in factions as voting blocs. The system works when outcomes are more predictable and benefits are guaranteed, but when faction members begin to question what they stand to gain, defection becomes more likely. Rather than seeing their faction members completely break ranks, faction heads have started to waver and allow independent voting (albeit with some caveats).

Second, the inclusion of local chapter votes means that LDP elites are looking for ways to get the voting to a second round.

Abe’s decision to back Takaichi assuredly had this objective in mind. For sure, if Takaichi wins, Abe stands to gain much influence as her benefactor. However, he also knows that having more candidates in the mix increases the chance of reaching a second round, where the weight of the vote shifts back to lawmakers.

For Abe and others in his camp who would rather not see Kono win, all they have to do now is make sure he does not secure enough votes to win a majority in the first round. This requirement would not exist if the local chapters were not involved.

Finally, and most simply, the local chapters will influence the outcome through their votes. Their motivations differ significantly from those of LDP members in Tokyo, and it means that the four candidates will need to dedicate the next 12 days to reaching out to rank-and-file members. They will need to explain how they will bring more benefits to the LDP’s local chapters than their competitors.

While the outcome remains to be seen, it is safe to say that this election has seen the greatest influence from local chapters in the past decade, and perhaps the most since the LDP’s foundation in 1955.

Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He previously served in the Japanese government as a Mansfield fellow.

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