After almost eight years as Prime Minister, Abe Shinzo retired. On 16 September the national Diet (Japan’s parliament) nominated Suga Yoshihide as his successor. Since Abe announced his intention to resign on 28 August, the ruling Liberal-Democratic Party (LDP) has gone through three frantic weeks to find an agreement on the succession. After a relatively short campaign, Suga easily beat the other two competitors (Ishiba Shigeru and Kishida Fumio) to the party’s presidency - an essential step to gain the support to be nominated as the country’s new prime minister, given the LDP majority in the Diet. This process has not been without controversy and some have criticised the hasty and scarcely inclusive tools that were employed to select Japan’s new leader. Nevertheless, Suga gained a strong majority at the LDP emergency convention on 14 September, obtaining 377 out of 535 votes among Diet members and local party representatives.
“Uncle Reiwa” revealed
Suga Yoshihide is an atypical leader for the LDP. First, he has no political lineage and his family background is relatively modest, which means that unlike other LDP politicians he had to climb the ladder from the local level up to the national administration. Second, he does not belong to any LDP faction, which is highly unusual for an LDP politician, given the importance of factions in creating intra-party support.
Suga has been Abe’s Chief Cabinet Secretary since 2012, thus participating in all the government’s policy decisions. The usually low-key and private figure came to the public’s attention in May 2019, when he was chosen to announce the name selected for Japan’s new imperial era (“Reiwa”, meaning “Beautiful Harmony”) after Emperor Naruhito ascended to the throne, an episode that granted him the nickname of “Reiwa Ojisan” (“Uncle Reiwa”).
Saying that Suga is a controversial figure would be an understatement. Over the years, the new prime minister has put himself at the forefront, seeking to control and even censor press reports on the Abe administration. Indeed, Suga, who has been described as “ruthless”, “controlling” and “vindictive”, was known to make life difficult for journalists that asked too many questions about Abe’s involvement in various corruption scandals. As Jake Adelstein writes in the Daily Beast, thanks to Suga, Japan today only ranks 66th in world press freedom rankings. Before Abe, the country was in 22nd place. Among others, Suga is accused of having hidden and destroyed documents implicating Abe and his wife in corruption and nepotism scandals. When confronted with controversial issues by journalists, Suga is usually evasive, showing what could be interpreted as disrespect for freedom of the press, which, in a democracy like Japan, should be a given.
Abe’s legacy preserved
Two factors best explain Suga’s rise to the premiership: on the one hand, his close relationship with Abe; on the other, his lack of a personal political base and his not belonging to any LDP faction. These factors indicate that Suga will probably maintain Abe’s political line, thus signalling a general continuity in Japanese politics. Indeed, faction leaders supportive of Abe like, for instance, Aso Taro or Nikai Toshihiro, have also rushed to express their support for his successor. The new prime minister can thus be considered as a compromise choice, nominated to avoid in-fighting between political heavyweights. From his part, Suga has pledged support for many of Abe’s signature policies, like the ultra-loose monetary policy enshrined in the so-called Abenomics. Still, the most tangible sign of continuity is the composition of the “new” leadership, which in fact includes all the key politicians active under Abe’s rule.
Although LDP heavyweights are believed to have opted for Suga under the assumption that his lack of popularity would make him easier to keep under control, polls have seen a surge in his appeal in the past weeks. Rumors have it that Suga might even decide not to wait until next year and call a snap election to consolidate his power and legitimacy. Indeed, he has been sharing publicly his willingness not to lead an interim government, and this message seems to be meeting the public’s expectations: according to a Nikkei poll, in fact, 56% of interviewees expect the new prime minister to stay in office for at least 4 years.
An incoming Reiwa for Japan’s foreign affairs?
In contrast with a recognised activism in domestic affairs, Suga is by his own admission rather inexperienced when it comes to foreign affairs as much as he might continue involving Abe - now “simply” a Diet member - as special diplomatic adviser. At least in the short term, this inexperience might spur Suga to maintain a cautious and Abe-like approach to Japan’s international relations. Still, some domestic observers have identified the new prime minister as less-hawkish than his predecessor - a trait that might prove crucial in improving relations with South Korea that had sensibly deteriorated under Abe’s watch. Yet, Suga is bound to prioritize relations with the United States and work to maintain an active cooperation with other regional middle powers like India, ASEAN and Australia. Suga has also already demonstrated a genuine willingness to meet face-to-face with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to discuss the long-standing issue of the abductions of Japanese nationals by North Korean forces. Lastly, the newly nominated prime minister inherited the “China conundrum” from Abe, an issue that the global pandemic has further complicated. While Japan and China have grown their national economies as increasingly intertwined, relations between the two countries have recently become more tense, especially regarding security issues like Taiwan and the territorial disputes in the East and South China Sea. Tensions notwithstanding, Suga is expected to continue engaging China as smoothly and cooperatively as possible, while still maintaining “the Japan-U.S. alliance as the foundation”.