[News analysis] How much will Japan change under Abe’s successor?

Posted on : 2020-09-15 18:03 KST Modified on : 2020-09-15 18:03 KST
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga celebrates his victory in the election to become the new leader of the Liberal Democratic Party on Sept. 14 in Tokyo, setting him up to replace former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. (Yonhap News)
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga celebrates his victory in the election to become the new leader of the Liberal Democratic Party on Sept. 14 in Tokyo, setting him up to replace former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. (Yonhap News)

LDP elects second-in-command Yoshihide Suga as its new leader, but many observers forecast “Abe Season 2”

Previously seen as a “dyed-in-the-wool second-in-command,” Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, 72, won a resounding victory in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leadership election to become the top-ranked figure in the Japanese political world. Nicknamed the “shadow prime minister” during the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, he has maintained a low profile, demonstrating excellent bureaucratic leadership without sharing his own vision or policies. Many are now watching with a mixture of apprehension and anticipation to see whether he can fend off some of the cynical jibes predicting “Season 2” of the Abe administration.

At 2 pm on Sept. 14, the LDP held a general meeting of lawmakers in the House of Representatives and House of Councillors to elect a new leader. According to an announcement by the party, Suga was elected with 377 out of 534 valid votes, or 70.6%. LDP Policy Research Council Chairperson Fumio Kishida finished second with 89 votes (16.7%), while former LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba finished third with 68 (12.7%). In remarks following his election, Suga said, “I wish to thank Prime Minister Abe for doing his utmost as Japan’s leader for the past seven years and eight months.”

“My mission is to overcome [the] COVID-19 [pandemic] and carry on the policies that Prime Minister Abe pursued,” he added. Suga is to officially succeed Abe at a Diet extraordinary session to name the new prime minister on Sept. 16.

A party insider but a self-made made and symbol of “non-hereditary” success

Suga was born in Honshu’s Akita Prefecture as the son of a wealthy strawberry farmer. As a politician, though, he has been a self-made man. Starting out as a secretary officer, he served as a city council member in Yokohama -- a place where he had no connections -- and a House of Representatives member for Kanagawa Prefecture’s second district. His rise from there to become the chief cabinet secretary and now the prime minister has made him a symbol of “non-hereditary” political success.

The secret to Suga’s success lies in a thoroughgoing “second-in-command spirit.” Abe’s decision to name Suga as his successor after his seven years and eight months of service as Chief Cabinet Secretary is seen by analysts as signaling the outgoing Prime Minister’s intention of carrying on his political influence after Suga takes office. Indeed, Suga has expressed his admiration for the life of Hidenaga Toyotomi, the younger half-brother who served as second-in-command to Hideyoshi Toyotomi. In one press interview, he said, “I believe that Hideyoshi Toyotomi was able to claim the country because he had someone like Hidenaga behind him looking out for him at all times.” Suga’s associates said that he had “long wanted to serve as secretary-general and Chief Cabinet Secretary” and “built relationships of trust through his ‘number two’ attitude.”

Adept bureaucrat who’s never presented clear ideas or policies of his own

Suga has been particularly adept at commanding the bureaucracy in aid of the commander. He has also been a central figure in the so-called “sontaku” culture that has been rated as one of the Abe administration’s pitfalls -- an environment where bureaucrats do things to ingratiate their superiors and the administration rather than achieve meaningful results in terms of policy. In May 2014, he created a Cabinet personnel bureau, giving the Office of the Prime Minister the power to appoint over 600 senior officials at the assistant director-general level and higher. His rationale was the elimination of “partitioned administration among agencies,” but critics accused him of concealing corruption and focusing solely on policies that made the prime minister look good. The situation reached the point where “sontaku” became Japan’s “word of the year” in 2017. Suga has claimed that using appointments to make officials work represents “responsible politics,” explaining that the “direction is basically set by politics.”

Another notable characteristic is Suga’s populist image as someone who pursues policies favored by the public. Following reductions in expressway tolls and NHK licensing fees, he has been calling for a 40% reduction in mobile phone charges. In a book titled “Japan’s Tomorrow,” professor Takashi Nakajima of Tokyo University of Science wrote, “Many of the policies Suga pursues are examples of pandering to the public’s wishes.”

“He has shown very strong populist tendencies, such as his announcement of plans to build a Disneyland after residents of Okinawa Prefecture began opposing the US military base relocation,” Nakajima noted.

Having risen from second-in-command to commander, Suga finds himself with many problems to solve. His victory was achieved by rallying different factions, with his positions as both party leader and prime minister locked up early on as five of the LDP’s seven wings announced their support. Already, the different factions have begun jockeying behind the scenes for key Cabinet and party positions. One of the tasks that Suga’s administration faces will be figuring out how to strike a balance with the factions as someone with a weak base within the party.

No clear vision for future; relations with S. Korea likely to stay at status quo

With his record of consistently playing second banana, another weakness for Suga concerns visions and policies for what direction he plans to take Japan in as a leader. In terms of major policies for the economy, foreign affairs, and national security, he has only said that he plans to “carry on from the Abe administration”; about the only policy he can call his own is the establishment of a “digital agency” to upgrade analog work practices. This explains why many in and around Japan are sarcastically speaking of the “debut of Abe’s Season 2.”

Under those circumstances, no major changes appear likely to be in store for South Korea-Japan relations. Commenting in a Japan press interview on the conflict with Seoul surrounding compensation for forced labor mobilization survivors, Suga has reiterated the Abe administration’s talking points, insisting that South Korea is “violating international law” and the “1965 Claims Settlement Agreement is the foundation of South Korea-Japan relations.”

While Suga’s term only extends for the remaining year of Abe’s administration, most observers are predicting he will dissolve the House of Representatives and hold an early general election. A general election win is essential for him to establish his legitimacy as a representative of the Japanese public and shore up his base within the LDP. Predictions of a general election in October are one of the factors behind a sharp recent rise in support for Suga, which has also benefited from full-scale boosts from the media and politicians. While Suga has insisted that a “response to COVID-19 takes precedence,” he has also left the window open by saying that the “right to dissolve the House of Representatives lies with the new prime minister.” Members of the Japanese House of Representatives are elected to four-year terms, but the prime minister has the authority to dissolve the house and call a new general election at any time.

By Kim So-youn, staff reporter

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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