Meet Mr. Suga: What to Expect from Japan’s New Prime Minister

By Purnendra Jain, Emeritus Professor, Department of Asian Studies, University of Adelaide

Yoshihide Suga breaks the mould of political leadership in Japan. The new prime minister is neither from a ‘blue blood’ political family nor is he a factional leader. As Japan expert Purnendra Jain writes, this self-made man and relative unknown will have to fight for his political survival against a backdrop of immense domestic and international challenge that could set the country’s course for years to come.

Yoshihide Suga today became prime minister of Japan. His election by 314 votes in the 465-seat lower house of parliament follows his victory in elections for the presidency of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) on Monday, which made his elevation to the prime ministership virtually a foregone conclusion, given the party's parliamentary dominance. Suga replaces the longest-serving prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who late last month abruptly announced his resignation, citing a worsening of his ulcerative colitis, a bowel disease.

Suga is a veteran LDP politician who served as the Chief Cabinet Secretary—one of the most senior government posts—under Abe for more than seven and a half years. From the start, he was the favourite to win the race after winning the support of Abe and of five of the current seven LDP factions.

Two other senior LDP figures—Fumio Kishida, a former foreign minister, and Shigeru Ishiba, a former minister for defence—made it to the final stages of the race, although they had little hope of winning due to insufficient factional support.

Still, in opinion polls, Suga remarkably came from behind. A June poll to gauge sentiment on a potential successor to Abe had Ishiba leading the pack with 31 percent, while Suga managed just three percent. By early September, Suga’s support had jumped to 38 percent while Ishiba’s fell to 25 percent. More importantly, Suga was the preference of 63 percent of LDP supporters, compared to just 22 percent who preferred Ishiba. Kishida came a distant third with only eight percent.

Who is Suga?

Suga is not a typical LDP leader. Far from it.

Political dynasties have dominated Japanese democracy with 27 of the 30 post-war prime ministers, including Abe coming from political families. Even today close to 40 percent of Japanese parliamentarians are hereditary politicians. In contrast, Suga is a self-made and first-generation politician, starting from scratch. The son of a farmer from northern Japan, he made his way by sheer hard work, negotiating the complex labyrinth of Japanese politics, climbing ladders step by step from local assemblyman to parliamentarian in 1996, and on to a powerful position in the Abe government before seizing the top position.

Moreover, Suga did not join any of the LDP factions, which have been the lifeblood of the party’s politics since it was formed in 1955. Today they play a crucial role in leadership selection and distribution of cabinet positions. Neither a blue-blood politician nor a factional operator, Suga is an exceptional LDP politician.

Suga announces Reiwa
New Prime Minister of Japan Yoshihide Suga, in his former role as Chief Cabinet Secretary, announces the new 'Reiwa' imperial era - April 1, 2019. Image credit: Cabinet Secretariat Public Relations Office.

Until Abe’s unexpected resignation, very few commentators and media outlets regarded Suga as Abe’s possible successor. Most eyes were fixed on others in a big field that included Kishida, Ishiba, defence minister Taro Kono and environment minister Shinjiro Koizumi, all of whom belong to political families.

Although not highly visible, Suga is not new to the Japanese public. He has been in the public gaze for many years as the chief cabinet secretary, making daily appearances in the media. He became especially recognisable after he revealed the new imperial era would be named Reiwa (meaning beauty of harmony in English, according to the government). This earned Suga the affectionate moniker ‘Uncle Reiwa’. But he is less well known internationally because all his cabinet positions have related to domestic affairs.

A sumo wrestler in his youth and teetotaller, his rise to the prime ministership has been a remarkable feat in the rough and tumble of Japanese politics. Suga is likely to remain prime minister until September 2021 when a regular LDP presidential election will be held and whoever wins at that time will remain as prime minister for the subsequent three years provided the party maintains a majority in the lower house of parliament.

Domestic Tasks

Given Abe anointed Suga as his successor, and marshalled support from other key factional leaders, the big question is whether Suga will simply pursue the Abe agenda or take a different policy course.

Reviving Japan’s sagging economy and containing COVID-19 will be Suga’s two main tasks. While he may make some adjustments on the edges such as initiatives to revive Japan’s regional and rural economies, he is likely to predominantly follow the Abenomics trajectory – a mix of fiscal stimulus, monetary easing, and structural reforms. He may also announce several additional economic packages to deal with economic hardship and to protect jobs.

Going by Suga’s policy initiatives in his past ministerial roles, such as reductions in fees and charges on road tolls and other consumer services, it won’t be surprising if the new prime minister makes some quick announcements to bring down electricity and mobile phone charges to give financial relief to ordinary families.

Under Suga, Abe’s agenda of revising the constitution will be put on the backburner, although it will not be completely off the table as there is a strong group of LDP parliamentarians who wish to pursue revision and Suga won’t sideline them.

Abe cabinet
Former Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe and cabinet speak with IOC during conference call, Tokyo, Japan - March 24, 2020. Image credit: Prime Minister's Office of Japan.

Also, political scandals including the alleged involvement of Abe in corrupt practices that had unsettled his administration, will be raised in parliament, but Suga will try to deflect those pressures. This might be a little more challenging for Suga as opposition forces are getting their act together. Last week the two main opposition parties and some independent groups merged to form a new-look Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan. The opposition is still weak but they are getting ready to challenge the new government in parliament and the LDP at the next election. Suga will need to watch the opposition moves carefully.

Foreign Policy

Suga has been more of a behind-the-scenes political operator than a visionary frontline leader. His experience and interest in foreign policy is rather thin and he will find the international relations terrain difficult to negotiate. He has admitted his weakness by stating that he ‘lacks the kind of diplomatic skills that outgoing leader Shinzo Abe has’ and that he ‘will need (Abe’s) assistance if he assumes the top job’.

But who Suga will seek assistance from in foreign and defence policy remains unclear. Much will depend on his choice of ministers. Both the foreign and defence ministers will have much greater freedom in their portfolios than under Abe, who himself handled foreign affairs effectively.

Suga’s main policy task is to make sure that Japan does not get caught in the crossfire of the US-China war of words and is able to maintain a stance of engaging and hedging in its relations with China, as Abe was successfully able to do. A key test will be Suga’s decision on whether or when to reschedule a visit by Xi Jinping, whose plans to come to Tokyo in April were derailed by the COVID-19 crisis. There was significant opposition within the LDP to the visit. Many members wanted to ‘cancel’ it while others wanted to ‘postpone’ it. Suga might decide to set a new date for the visit or wait for a consensus to emerge within his party to invite Xi again. Whatever decision he makes is likely to have significant symbolic and practical bearing on how Japan balances relations with the US and China, especially after November’s US presidential elections.

The unfinished tasks of an agreement with Russia to finally settle disputed territorial boundaries, the abduction of Japanese nationals between 1977 and 1983 by the North Korean regime, and mending political ties with South Korea will no doubt occupy the mind of the Suga government too, but they may not be immediate foreign policy priority areas. Maintaining a solid relationship with Washington—no matter who is in the White House after November—and making sure Japan’s relations with China do not deteriorate will be the main focus.

Abe and Morrison
Former Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison have built a strong personal rapport. Image credit: @ScottMorrisonMP, Twitter.

Abe’s narrative of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific will remain the key strategic driver of Japan’s foreign policy. Here Japan relations with Australia become important. Australia-Japan relations have never been better than under Abe. Abe and Scott Morrison developed a good personal rapport as affirmed in a short summit meeting between the two prime ministers last week where they acknowledged ‘that the Japan-Australia relationship was now stronger than ever,’ and noted ‘that the two countries have become each other's indispensable security partners in the Indo-Pacific region’.

Suga will tread carefully and cautiously on foreign policy issues, as his main focus will remain on domestic matters, including the Olympics next year. But the most important political business for Suga will be to win the next election. A general election is not due until October 2021, but there are suggestions that a snap poll could be held as early as next month. The timing of it will be of the essence.

In a parliamentary democracy like Japan, it’s the prime minister’s prerogative to choose the timing of elections. But these are no ordinary times for Japan as it struggles to find an effective response to the coronavirus crisis. Above all, the new prime minister will have to work with the junior coalition partner—the Komeito—a religious-based party with a grassroots organisation that mobilises a significant number of votes for the LDP in electoral districts where Komeito’s own candidates are not running.

Suga is Japan’s interim prime minister until the time his leadership is endorsed by the general public through a general election. The new prime minister’s energy will be divided between some burning domestic and international tasks, and winning the general election which may be held soon.

Purnendra Jain is Adjunct Professor in the Department of Asian Studies at the University of Adelaide.

Banner image: Yoshihide Suga speaks at an Association of the Families of Victims Kidnapped by North Korea meeting - May 19, 2019. Credit: Miki Yoshihito, Flickr.