The political status quo was upended worldwide in 2020, and Japan was no exception, with Shinzo Abe resigning as prime minister to bring his nearly eight-year tenure to an end, passing the baton to his loyal confidant Yoshihide Suga.
But don’t expect 2021 to be a quieter year in the political epicenter of Nagatacho. If anything, more drama is likely on the way.
The next Liberal Democratic Party leadership contest is slated for September and, as Suga is serving the remaining period of Abe’s third term, he needs to again win the party’s confidence to establish himself as a long-term leader. Adding more potential drama to the mix, terms for Lower House members will expire the following month.
Determined to carry out his ambitions to lower cell phone bills and forge ahead with digitalization by establishing a new agency dedicated to that portfolio, Suga hopes to showcase tangible results immediately to woo voters and his fellow lawmakers alike.
But the public’s confidence in Suga is dwindling at a startling pace. Within his first 100 days in office, his Cabinet’s approval rating plummeted by 20 points in one poll, largely reflecting disappointment with his coronavirus response, which some critics say has heavily prioritized the economy rather than public health.
Entering a high-stakes election year, the prime minister will be faced with a series of uphill battles over the global health crisis, his policies — and even his own political fate.
“I’m going to do my job one day at a time. That’s all that matters,” Suga said in an interview with BS TV Tokyo last month. “I’d like to fulfill the promises that I’ve made.”
A regular parliamentary session will be convened on Jan. 18, during which the prime minister hopes to pass an economic stimulus package and a fiscal 2021 budget to fund the projects he is invested in, particularly digitalization.
Political observers expect Suga to concentrate on governing and say a Lower House election will likely have to wait until after the Summer Olympics and toward the end of lawmakers’ terms, which expire Oct. 21. In an interview with TBS aired in December, Suga ruled out the possibility of dissolving the Lower House until the virus is subdued. He did not follow advice from LDP lawmakers who urged him to hold an election immediately after he became prime minister because of his high initial approval ratings.
The prime minister’s highest priority in the new year will be to contain a virus that is pushing the nation’s health care system to the brink. The crisis could jeopardize his political standing — depending on how his administration handles it going forward.
Critics say his obsession with economic recovery, epitomized by his initial stubbornness over whether or not to halt the Go To Travel domestic tourism subsidy program he helped engineer, contributed to the rise of daily COVID-19 cases and the nation’s death toll from the pandemic.
Suga modified his stance and suspended the program last month only after multiple polls revealed his Cabinet’s nosediving approval ratings. Now in damage-control mode, he has since then responded to requests from the press more frequently and agreed to multiple television, newspaper and online media interviews in an attempt to shake off criticism over his messaging, including his tendency to speak in a monotone voice and stick to the script in his speeches.
Suga is convinced that he will garner the public’s approval if he executes his definition of the job, which also gives off an impression of him being inflexible, said Jun Iio, a professor of Japanese politics at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies. Being oblivious to what the public wants to hear from a top leader and refusing to bend in spite of advice to change course are, from the public’s perspective, disconcerting aspects of his leadership, he added.
Some analysts have attributed recent stumbles to a lack of advisers who are capable of giving honest, critical feedback as well as those who can coordinate with political parties. Suga’s well-documented inflexibility, an aspect that he proudly embraces, is demonstrated in his top-down approach via direct instructions to Cabinet ministers.
Iio said Suga was skillful in coordinating roles in the Abe administration as chief Cabinet secretary, but also engaged in a tug-of-war power struggle with Abe’s closer inner circles, which in the end led to a balanced decision-making process. That balance, the professor said, is absent in the current administration, where decisions are made in a top-down style.
Even Abe, when asked about his potential successors in an August interview with a monthly magazine, noted that Suga as prime minister would be lacking the kind of presence that Suga was for him as his long-time chief Cabinet secretary.
“There’s a possibility that he was convinced that there were opposition forces against his policy initiatives that he wasn’t able to work on until now and people would understand what he was trying to accomplish even though poll numbers may drop temporarily,” Iio said. “In the end, it’s not that his enemies are getting stronger and trying to trip him. Instead, he’s tripping over his own problems.”
Declining public support is always alarming for a prime minister, but especially so for Suga, who lacks a solid support base within the party. Suga does not belong to any mainstream LDP factions and at times has advocated for the party’s old-school faction-based politics to be abolished.
Nevertheless, Suga had the upper hand in the September race to choose Abe’s successor, mostly because he promptly earned an endorsement from Toshihiro Nikai, the LDP’s secretary-general. Key factions followed suit so as not to be disadvantaged politically in a new Cabinet.
An alarming drop in poll numbers exposed an inherent flaw for the Suga administration as the prime minister, lacking the type of bedrock of support that only a top LDP faction can provide, must remain popular with the public if he is to convince his party that he can be a long-term leader, said Hitoshi Komiya, a Japanese politics professor at Aoyama Gakuin University.
“For Mr. Suga, he needs the public on his side. In other words, that’s the only advantage he has,” Komiya said. “He’s bad at public speaking so he instead makes an appeal to the public to focus on the track record of his favorite subjects…. He’s desperately doing that, but what the public wants to know about is the COVID situation. There’s a complete miscommunication.”
So far, however, no prominent LDP lawmakers have expressed an interest in challenging Suga in September’s party leadership race.
Abe, who was seen as a dark horse candidate to return and lead the party if the current administration collapses, lost momentum starting in the fall when an allegation over improper use of funds in relation to a dinner party resurfaced.
Despite his earlier claims to the contrary, his political group covered a shortfall in the cost of dinners for supporters on the eve of his annual cherry blossom-viewing party while he was prime minister. Abe wasn’t charged under the Political Funds Control Act, but observers believe the decline of his influence within the party is inevitable.
Iio, the professor, said if Suga is unable to bounce back, he still has a final trump card in his hand: Tap Taro Kono, the minister in charge of administrative reforms and a member of the Taro Aso faction, as his successor, and appoint someone from the Hiroyuki Hosoda faction — the largest LDP group and the one to which Abe belonged until he became prime minister in 2012 — to a critical Cabinet position such as chief Cabinet secretary. In this way, two of the most influential factions would be obliged to go with the scenario, as a divide within a faction is not ideal in an election year.
Kono, like Suga, has Kanagawa as his district and has publicly said he wants to become the prime minister some day. Suga tapped Kono, a former defense and foreign minister, to lead a portfolio that the prime minister is particularly passionate about. Having Kono as a successor is politically expedient for Suga in order to stifle an internal power struggle among LDP factions beforehand, Iio said.
On the other hand, Komiya raised a scenario that if the Suga administration, viewed by some as the Abe administration 2.0, fails, the LDP may be tempted to opt for a fresh approach, which may include a candidate such as former Defense Ministers Shigeru Ishiba or Tomomi Inada, or perhaps Seiko Noda, the LDP’s executive acting secretary-general.
Ishiba, who had been the public’s favorite pick among independent voters until Suga announced his candidacy in September’s party election, has sought the LDP leadership position four times. He has been ostracized by the party because of his well-documented critical attitude toward the Abe administration. Taking responsibility for his defeat, he resigned from the top of his own faction in October.
In September’s race, both Inada and Noda were eager to join the race, but the party leadership essentially persuaded the two women to let the idea go for now.
Said Komiya, “I don’t know specific names, but there’s a feeling that the next candidate would be someone who could turn the tide even just a little bit from Abe and Suga.”
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