It wasn’t too long ago that Yoshihide Suga was an afterthought in the post-Abe sweepstakes.
As recently as late July, the Nikkei Shimbun found that among supporters of the Liberal Democratic Party, only 4 percent supported Suga for Japan’s next prime minister, trailing not only his eventual contenders former defense minister Shigeru Ishiba and former foreign minister Fumio Kishida, but also Constitutional Democratic Party leader Yukio Edano.
After more than seven years as the power behind Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, it was difficult to imagine the dour Suga rising to the top job.
Yet on Wednesday, he was selected by the legislature as Japan’s 99th prime minister.
Given that Suga is still a relatively unknown quantity as a leader, some in the political and diplomatic community fret whether Abe’s chief lieutenant will be able to maintain political stability after Abe’s tenure of nearly eight years. The fear is that once again, Japan could devolve to the “revolving-door” premiership that preceded Abe’s record-setting tenure. Indeed, before Abe returned to power, Japan saw six prime ministers come and go in as many years — including Abe himself in 2007.
Those concerns may be overblown. The speed with which Suga secured the support of Toshihiro Nikai, the LDP’s secretary-general, and then the leaders of four other major factions — bringing a majority of the public along too — suggests that he should not be underestimated. In fact, it shows that he is a formidable politician who may well be capable of serving as more than a caretaker for the remaining year of Abe’s term and able to avoid the revolving door from spinning again at the Prime Minister’s Office.
Perhaps the factor most in his favor is that polls suggest that the public would prefer Suga to last beyond next year. The boost the Abe Cabinet has received in the polls since Abe announced his intention to resign — and the high marks Abe has received for his record in office from the same polls — suggests that the electorate may not regret Abe’s departure but is not disappointed that he will be replaced by a key decision-maker for the duration of his tenure who has ran on a promise of continuity.
There is little to suggest that the public is hungry for change, whether from within the LDP or from the opposition, giving Suga some margin for error early in his premiership. Abe, after all, spent much of his final three years battling allegations of influence peddling and he not only maintained healthy levels of public approval but even won two national elections while facing intense scrutiny not only from opposition lawmakers and the press but also from within the ruling coalition.
Meanwhile, after essentially “disappearing” into the chief Cabinet secretary’s role for the duration of Abe’s administration, Suga’s political identity is receiving renewed attention. As a nonhereditary politician — the first LDP leader not born into a political family in three decades — he may be more relatable than many of his predecessors.
Throughout his career, dating back to his time as a local politician in Yokohama or even his work as a secretary to LDP parliamentarian Hikosaburo Okonogi, he has been relentlessly focused on solving problems to improve the lives of constituents, applying an increasingly legendary (or infamous) work ethic to the task at hand. In his writings and speeches, he has shown little appetite for ideological abstraction, in contrast to Abe.
It is possible that Suga may be detail-oriented to a fault; at some point, voters will expect the new prime minister to articulate a vision for their country’s future that goes beyond continuing what Abe started. But not having to be reminded of the importance of focusing on the pocketbook issues voters care about most — which Suga often had to do for Abe — may help him keep the public on his side.
Finally, he arrives in the prime minister’s office with unparalleled experience in the central decision-making apparatus of the Japanese government, increasingly essential as the prime minister’s office and Cabinet secretariat have accumulated power. He has earned the fear and respect of the bureaucracy, having spent nearly eight years managing the promotion decisions for its upper echelons. Kato Katsunobu, his choice for chief Cabinet secretary, was his deputy for the first three years of the second Abe administration and arrives in the role with his extensive experience of his own.
To be sure, these factors alone may not be sufficient to guarantee success. Most significantly, Suga faces more severe conditions than Abe faced for virtually all of his tenure. Suga takes over with the economy in recession, having just suffered a historically dismal quarter. COVID-19 remains an active threat to public health and the economy. The tourists who played an important role in boosting growth during Abe’s premiership will not be returning anytime soon.
Meanwhile, Abe has left Suga with major issues in Japan’s relations with both China and the United States. Abe’s pursuit of detente with Xi Jinping’s China has foundered on Beijing’s actions in Hong Kong and the East and South China Seas, suggesting that one of the most urgent tasks facing the new prime minister will be to articulate a new approach to China amidst mounting hostility between Beijing and the democratic world.
And if there is no greater task for a Japanese prime minister than preserving the relationship with the U.S., Suga will have to address two especially tricky issues in the relationship in the immediate term, the future of Japan’s defense posture in response to the growing threat of North Korean, Chinese, and Russian missiles and a new agreement regarding Japan’s support for U.S. forces in Japan.
Depending on the outcome of the U.S. presidential election, Suga could find himself stuck between a public reluctant to pay dramatically more for U.S. forces, expensive missile defense systems, or mooted proposals for a limited counterstrike force and a confident, assertive, and freshly re-elected Donald Trump. Any of these issues, if mishandled, could critically weaken Suga’s premiership and lead to his early exit from office, particularly since there is a growing list of ambitious LDP politicians waiting in the wings.
It is by no means certain that Suga will be overwhelmed by these challenges. The opposition’s continuing weakness will enable Suga, like Abe, to threaten a snap election to keep the LDP disciplined, particularly if he is able to leverage the public’s desire for stability to maintain healthy approval ratings. His talent for personnel matters may also keep his party and the bureaucracy in line. But fate has dealt Japan’s new prime minister a challenging hand, and it will likely take all of his hard-earned political acumen and administrative experience to endure in office.
Tobias Harris is Japan analyst and a senior vice president at Teneo Intelligence. He is the author of “The Iconoclast: Shinzō Abe and the New Japan.”