Saturday, September 19, 2020

Suga Yoshihide to Become Next Japanese Prime Minister

The conservative majority Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) of Japan elected departing Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s chief cabinet secretary, Suga Yoshihide, its president on Monday.

Barring an unlikely revolt in parliament, Suga is all but guaranteed to succeed Abe as the next prime minister of Japan.

Suga’s brief campaign for the swiftly-held election looked like an uphill battle after Abe announced his surprise resignation for health reasons on August 28, with former Defense Minister Ishiba Shigeru looking like an early favorite, but Suga quickly turned those polls around and won on Monday with a landslide victory in the LDP leadership contest.

According to Asahi Shimbun’stally of the somewhat opaque party leadership vote, Suga won 377 out of 534 votes cast by LDP lawmakers, while LDP policy chief Kishida Fumio came in second with 89 votes and Ishiba only managed third place with 68. Although not directly relevant to the process of selecting the majority party leader or prime minister, the Japanese public supported Suga by over 50 percent in the latest round of opinion polls.

Japan’s parliament, the Diet, is expected to confirm Suga as prime minister on Wednesday, barring some extraordinary revolt by disaffected LDP members and minority party lawmakers.

Suga expressed “heartfelt gratitude” to the departing Abe in his victory speech and promised to continue implementing Abe’s policies.

“A political vacuum must not happen when Japan is facing a national crisis such as the new coronavirus pandemic. I will take over and advance the efforts Prime Minister Abe has made,” he said.

Asahi Shimbun quoted Suga pleading to “push forward with regulatory reform by breaking top-to-bottom sectionalism, vested interests and a tendency among government ministries and agencies to blindly follow precedents.”

Kyodo News reported Suga will keep LDP Secretary-General Nikai Toshihiro and Diet Affairs Committee Chairman Hiroshi Moriyama but plans to reshuffle other party leadership positions, including the appointment of a new policy research chairman, the position currently held by his defeated rival Kishida Fumio. Nikai was one of Suga’s earliest and strongest supporters in the party.

CNN quoted Hokkaido University political science professor Kazuto Suzuki theorizing that Suga won thanks to a “brief spike in Abe’s popularity after he announced his resignation,” reversing a downward trend inflicted largely by the coronavirus pandemic, as with many elected leaders.

LDP leaders apparently desired stability, which Abe was unusually good at providing during his record-setting tenure as prime minister, and Suga was Abe’s quietly competent right-hand man during that period — the “man behind the curtain,” as the left-wing New York Times newspaper styled him on Monday.

Suga may also benefit from his image as a self-made man from humble rural origins, an interesting contrast with Abe’s image as the scion of political royalty and corporate success. Many see him as a workaholic who does a hundred situps every morning and likes to unwind by fishing, and he has expressed few political opinions of his own while steadfastly working to implement Abe’s policies. He changed his mind about the only significant difference from Abe’s platform he has expressed since his boss resigned, namely a consumer tax increase.

Suga’s biggest potential obstacle is that he lacks Abe’s charisma, although the Japanese public might be in the mood for quietly competent leadership as they strive to recover from the pandemic. The Times noted, on the other hand, that Suga’s swift consolidation of support in what looked like a wide-open race demonstrated “deft political skills honed as a behind-the-scenes operator.”

His low-key speaking style makes him sound like he is asking if Ferris Bueller is in class today, but the Times quoted critics who sense a whiff of Darth Vader lurking behind Suga’s placid exterior:

Some critics say Mr. Suga was the architect behind some of Mr. Abe’s more authoritarian impulses, including his consolidation of power over Japan’s sprawling bureaucracy and the use of tactics to silence criticism in the news media.

“I think Mr. Suga is more dangerous than Mr. Abe,” Kihei Maekawa, a former vice education minister, told The Sunday Mainichi, a weekly magazine.

With Mr. Suga as prime minister, Mr. Maekawa predicted, “bureaucrats will be servants or act as a private military” under the prime minister’s office, “worse than in the Abe era.”

This raises the question of whether Suga plans to be in office long enough to form any private armies of bureaucrats (or deploy a bigger army of actual soldiers, as Abe hoped to do by implementing an unpopular change to Japan’s pacifist constitution).

Suga is 71, and while he is in excellent shape thanks to all those sit-ups, he does not seem interested in challenging Abe’s record for the longest-serving prime minister of the postwar era. The Times cited rumors that Suga might call a snap election soon, which could either consolidate his position or facilitate a graceful exit after a brief period as prime minister.

Kyodo News quoted Suga saying he thinks it would be “difficult” to hold a new election quickly given the coronavirus danger.

“It is important to rebuild the economy while also containing the coronavirus at the same time. It’s not something I will do as soon as the virus is brought under control either,” he said at a press conference on Monday.

John Hayward

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