What Does It Mean to Have Yoshihide Suga as the New Prime Minister of Japan?

The new Prime Minister of Japan, Yoshihide Suga, and his cabinet, won the Liberal Democratic Party’s presidential vote by 377 out of 534 votes after the previous PM Shinzo Abe suddenly resigned for health reasons. At a time when Japan is facing challenges on a range of domestic and foreign issues, the unpredictable power shift is noteworthy.

Besides the suddenness of Abe’s resignment, the relatively thin political background of the new PM drew public attention, and this special attention is influenced heavily by the factional nature of Japanese politics. Japan’s largest party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), has long controlled the parliament with a political partnership with minor party Komeito (except for 1993-1994 and 2009-2012). The party consists of multiple factions, and to be selected as PM, it is necessary to secure supports of the strong factions.

Suga’s predecessor, Abe, had significant political resources; his maternal grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, played a key role in World War II and later served as the PM. His paternal grandfather, Kan Abe, served in the House of Representatives. And his father, Shintaro Abe, served in the House of Representatives and as Chief Cabinet Secretary, Minister for International Trade and Industry and Minister for Foreign Affairs. Abe’s policies were bold during his time in office, as he could rely on his powerful political network.

In contrast, as many analysts have constantly repeated, Japanese new PM is the son of strawberry farmers. This special attention highlights his non-political background and provides evidence for Japanese factional perception. Thus, to become the new PM after Abe, Suga utilized political resources accumulated during his office of Chief Cabinet Secretary since 2012 and attracted support from Abe’s faction as a key member of Abe’s cabinet, instead of directly benefiting from any strong political background.

Indeed, Suga’s victory has a lot to do with his close relationship with Abe and his public announcements to continue Abe’s policies. With Abe’s sudden resignation, the LDP as a whole would prefer to seek a smoother transition before the next election rather than implement a change in key policies. During the past months after Abe’s resignation, Suga has been stressing the continuation of the famous “Abenomics” (which contains policies of more governmental spending, monetary expansion and encouraging private investment to “pull Japan out of its deflationary downturn“), the revision of pacifist Constitution, and the maintenance of a “free and open Indo-Pacific policy“. The evidence has shown that the support for the new PM from several powerful factions within the LDP is driven by the need for the coherence he could bring as Abe’s close ally. So far, Suga has done well to inherit the political resources Abe temporarily let loose. 

In regards to future policies, Suga plans to preserve the use of “Abenomics” to stimulate the domestic economy and plans to implement further bureaucratic reforms mainly in the Health Department. Merging regional Banks and increasing the competitiveness of Japanese mobile service industries are also on Suga’s list. These policies may have been necessary because, although the economic policies of Abe’s cabinet had shown effectiveness in controlling inflation, they failed to make evident progress at stimulating economic growth and maintaining a dynamic labor market. In the future, Suga even plans to include reformists into his cabinet, an attempt that would raise serious concerns among those under the traditional factional structure.

In a transition period, to implement such policy change is reasonable, although daring. As a political figure with relatively weak background, establishing a special governing style to attract core supporters and gain votes rather than solely relying on ties with Abe is necessary for Suga; and in the upcoming 2021 election, both the public and the LDP-led coalition wouldn’t choose to heavily emphasize the policy consistency from Abe’s cabinet to the new government since the transitioning mission of the one-year new PM office will have ended, during when the bold structural reform is likely to be effective in attracting public favors, especially for Suga, who has eight-year rich administrative experiences as the Chief Cabinet Secretary.

Overall, the new PM is more focused on the economy than his predecessor. Given Abe’s main goal to revise the pacifist Constitution and the current economic conditions, this economic focus might be more welcomed. During the Abe’s administration, although policy portfolios such as the “Abenomics” and the “Abenomics 2.0” had been proposed, they did not get enough attention and development under Abe and his economic experts. On the one hand, this may be due to the fact that Abe’s cabinet always focused on other political or legal agendas (handling the relationship and interactions with the U.S., China, Korea peninsula etc.), on the other hand, the absence of competitive countering economic plans from opposed factions also made Abe and his supportive factions lack of incentives to implement further refinement and development on the economic structure. The combination of factors did enable Abe to spend significant resources on pushing his agenda of revising the 9th clause of the Constitution to expand the Self-Defense Forces rather than deepen economic reformation.

As soon as Suga took over the office, he faced severe economic problems caused by the pandemic, which forced him to spend his limited political resources and governing period to focus excessively on boosting the economy and dealing with the COVID-19. To tackle the urgent issue, in addition to the proposals mentioned above to merge regional banks and improve the competitiveness of mobile service industries, Suga hopes to take looser measures and revitalize regional economies

In terms of foreign relations, it remains to be observed what the new PM will do, beyond cementing Japan’s good relationship with the United States and seeking stability in the East Asia with China among disputes over sovereignty and human rights. 

Although many commentators regard the new cabinet as a simple transition after Abe’s resignation towards the 2021 election, leaving Suga, who has plenty of administrative experience, to deal with the pandemic and the accompanying economic problems might be a good idea. For now, Suga still retains many influential factional figures in the cabinet. Having solidified the basic supporters, whether Suga will manage to carry out effective structural reforms, successfully confronting pandemic and boosting the economy during the roughly one-year period should be the public’s next focus. 

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