Young Japanese MPs revolt in world’s fastest ageing society

Japanese politics & policy updates

For decades, old men have pulled the strings in Japanese politics. But as the ruling party prepares for a tight contest that will determine who will be the next prime minister, young parliamentarians are waging a mini revolt for a bigger voice in governing the world’s fastest ageing society.

The leadership contest for the Liberal Democratic party has shone a spotlight on a newly emboldened generation of MPs anxious to step out of the shadows of party elders who have wielded power for years. 

With an unpredictable four-way race under way to find a successor for Yoshihide Suga, the prime minister who announced his resignation this month, junior members of the LDP have suddenly emerged as a crucial swing factor in this week’s vote.

Critics said their campaign to boost their popular appeal could fizzle out as soon as the lower house election is held by the end of November. But some analysts said their activism could be a catalyst for a long-awaited generational change in leadership, accelerating the demise of factions and the backroom deals that have shaped Japanese politics.

“We felt a sense of crisis. There is a need to reconsider how the LDP operates,” Jun Tsushima, a lower house MP who belongs to the LDP’s third largest faction, told the Financial Times. 

At 54, Tsushima could only be considered young by Japanese standards. After all, the average age of the four most senior office bearers in the LDP is 72. Tsushima is one of the architects of a 90-member group of junior LDP members calling for party reform and a break from opaque, factional decision making.

“The junior members actually take part in party deliberations but it’s just not visible from the outside,” he added.

Another of their central demands is the freedom to vote independently for the leadership contest, which would allow them to choose candidates who may not be backed by their factions.

Such a suggestion is taboo for many members of LDP’s internal factions, which exercise their power by supporting a single candidate in exchange for commitments on policy and ministerial jobs.

MPs younger than 40 make up just 8 per cent of Japan’s lower house of parliament compared with 22 per cent in the UK, according to research by the Inter-Parliamentary Union. But the so-called junior ranks — the MPs who have been elected three times or less — now account for nearly half of LDP’s lower house members.

To attract their votes, most of the leading contenders have pledged to appoint younger members to important positions and fix the ad hoc implementation of the LDP’s mandatory retirement age of 73. 

With an election coming up at a time of declining LDP support, the junior MPs have flocked to support Taro Kono, the 58-year-old vaccines minister with the strongest popular appeal.

But recent polls suggest that even Kono may fail to win a majority in the first round of votes on September 29, which would trigger a second round where backing from LDP’s biggest factions would be critical.

Many LDP factions have been cautious about supporting Kono, who belongs to the group led by Taro Aso, finance minister, for his independent approach to policy and promises of generational shift.

The influence of factions has waned since the mid-2000s as power consolidated under the prime minister’s office, particularly under the administrations of Junichiro Koizumi and Shinzo Abe. Electoral reforms in the mid-1990s also meant that factions played a smaller role in campaign finance. 

Many MPs, though, join factions since they are still influential in the allocation of cabinet posts and other party positions. 

“I think [the junior MPs] are too spoiled,” said Minoru Kiuchi, a 56-year-old lower house MP who does not belong to an LDP faction.

“It doesn’t make sense to demand independence when they’re actually enjoying the benefits of belonging to a faction. If they want to act on their own, they should leave the factions.” 

The entry of two female candidates has made the leadership race the most diverse in LDP history. But their participation — with the backing of powerful figures such as Abe and secretary-general Toshihiro Nikai — is seen by many inside the party as a way to divide the votes so that Kono does not win a majority in the first round.

“This is the factions exerting their powerful influence,” said Mizuho Onuma, an associate professor at Taisho University and a former MP.

“If Kono wins a majority in the first round and becomes the prime minister, I think that would be a victory for the junior MPs and evidence that public support overruled factional politics.”

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