Photo/Illutration Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, left, attends a fund-raising party held by the Liberal Democratic Party faction headed by Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, right, in October 2020. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

The first major sign that Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's house of cards was starting to collapse came after the polls closed on Aug. 22 in the Yokohama mayoral election.

Suga represents a Lower House district in Yokohama and offered his personal support to Hachiro Okonogi, a close associate who resigned his post in the Suga Cabinet to run for mayor of the city, which lies to the west of Tokyo.

Despite the powerful endorsement, Okonogi lost by about 180,000 votes to a candidate backed by the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan.

The defeat came in the wake of losses for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in Diet by-elections as well as in the Tokyo metropolitan assembly election.

That led to calls from some veteran LDP lawmakers that the party head would have to be replaced before facing the voters in a Lower House election that has to be held in October or November.

Another major headache for the ruling party emerged two days after the Yokohama mayoral election when a select group of high-ranking government officials, including Suga, were given the results of a national survey about the LDP’s chances in the Lower House election.

The data showed that the LDP could lose 60 seats or more. That would mean the LDP would fall under 233 seats, the simple majority in the Lower House. 

Other LDP lawmakers scrambled to get their hands on the survey results.

One younger lawmaker of the LDP faction headed by Finance Minister Taro Aso learned about the alarming numbers and said, “This means we have to replace the top two leaders of Suga and (LDP Secretary-General) Toshihiro Nikai."

Suga himself asked a close associate, “Do you really think I am that unpopular?”

Two days after the results were divulged to insiders, an LDP committee decided on the schedule for the party presidential election, setting the vote for Sept. 29.

The very same day, Aug. 26, Fumio Kishida, a former foreign minister, announced he was running.

One of the measures Kishida promised to implement if elected LDP president caught Suga and his associates by surprise. Kishida pledged to establish clear term limits for party executives, with each term set for one year and an executive only allowed to serve three consecutive terms.

That measure was clearly aimed at Nikai, who by that time had already been in the powerful secretary-general post for more than five years, having taken on the position under Suga’s predecessor, Shinzo Abe.

For quite some time, Aso had been telling his close associates that Nikai had to go. Aso and Abe were dissatisfied at the long hold that Nikai had on power.

An LDP lawmaker told Suga, “If you want the support of Abe and Aso, the condition will be to replace Nikai.”

Suga felt that removing Nikai would deflate the trial policy balloon floated by Kishida about LDP executives.

The prime minister was banking on utilizing the three major powers at his disposal, namely personnel decisions, dissolving the Lower House and ordering the compilation of a supplementary budget, to give him the ammunition to win re-election as LDP head.

Little did Suga know that others were working against him and tying his hands so he could not use any of those tools.

On Aug. 30, Suga met with Nikai and told him, “I want to replace all the LDP executives.”

Nikai immediately replied, “Please do whatever you think is best.”

Suga thought he had gained Nikai’s blessing and told a close associate, “Nikai is an incredible politician.”

But Nikai was fuming inside. He angrily told associates the next day, “Who does Suga think has been supporting him all this time?”

After Abe abruptly announced in August 2020 that he was stepping down as prime minister due to health reasons, Nikai quickly announced his support for Suga and cleared the way for his landslide win in the LDP presidential election and to become prime minister.

In his meeting with Nikai, Suga also said he wanted to implement a major package of economic measures ahead of the Lower House election. Announcing that package would set the course for compiling a supplementary budget.

Suga met with Nikai again on Aug. 31 and indicated that one option he was considering was dissolving the Lower House in mid-September and calling a snap election.

But reports about the Lower House dissolution triggered strong opposition within the LDP, forcing Suga to quickly backtrack. The following day, he admitted that with the novel coronavirus pandemic still far from over it would not be possible to hold a Lower House election.

No longer able to use his authority to dissolve the Lower House, Suga also found himself checkmated on the supplementary budget.

According to sources, Aso told high-ranking Finance Ministry officials on Sept. 2 that Suga would be out of power after the LDP election on Sept. 29, so they never got around to compiling a supplementary budget.

While Suga was still trying on Sept. 2 to make decisions about replacing LDP executives, the refusal of Nikai to have his close associate take over as chairman of the LDP’s Election Strategy Committee stalled Suga’s efforts.

According to sources, Suga called Shigeru Ishiba, a former secretary-general, on Sept. 2 and asked if he could consult with him about personnel changes he wanted to make on Sept. 6.

While Suga never mentioned a specific post he had in mind for Ishiba, sources said that the prime minister was prepared to have Ishiba take over from Nikai.

But that was not to be because Suga on Sept. 3 told a meeting of LDP executives that he would not run in the party presidential election.

After the announcement, Nikai told reporters, “There has never been any problems with LDP executives, who were united in our efforts to support Suga.”

But Nikai later privately told associates, “(Suga) should have stopped to think over the situation more seriously. It just shows how ungrateful he was.”

(This article was written by Asako Myoraku and Natsuki Okamura.)