It all started with a group message among The Japan Times reporters and editors.
“Suga’s out?” the message, sent at 11:50 a.m. Friday, said.
I was waiting for a press briefing on the fourth floor of the Liberal Democratic Party headquarters when the message flashed on my smartphone screen. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga had entered a room on the eighth floor of the building roughly 20 minutes earlier for an emergency meeting of the party’s top executives, hoping to reach a consensus among attendees on his plan to reshuffle executive lineups.
Or at least that was what reporters were expecting to happen.
“Huh?” I texted back immediately. By then, Suga had already left the building and returned to the Prime Minister’s Office. Suddenly, a one-line news alert from NHK popped up on my phone: “Prime minister announces he will not run in Liberal Democratic Party presidential race (11:49).”
“You gotta be kidding,” I muttered, feeling slightly light-headed. Adrenaline rushed in. My heart started pounding. The queasy feeling was reminiscent of what I experienced in August last year, when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe decided to step down from his post.
My cortisol levels spiked as the stress hormone hijacked my central nervous system. I began frantically typing on my computer to chronicle the beginning of the end of the Suga administration.
Caretaker prime minister
Suga had been a loyal foot soldier for Abe, serving as chief Cabinet secretary, a position that combines the role of top government spokesperson and chief of staff, for the nearly eight-year duration of the second Abe administration. He handled questions from the press in twice-daily briefings, five days a week, rarely going beyond the government’s carefully scripted lines and deflecting critical questions.
When the 72-year-old became prime minister, I got to know him better through off-the-record gatherings as I covered the Prime Minister’s Office. Soon, he came to recognize my face.
As expected, even behind the scenes he remained reserved — but it was not because he disliked the press. Rather, I realized, it was merely because he was a taciturn person.
Ultimately, had he embraced a more outspoken and flashy engagement style, the public might have been persuaded by his arguments — especially in defending his administration’s COVID-19 response.
In the opening days of his tenure, Suga opted not to call a snap election, foregoing an opportunity for the LDP to renew its majority in the Diet while his approval ratings were high. Given he had about a year before Lower House members’ terms were to expire, he focused on some of his signature projects. As promised, he implemented policies to lower cell phone bills, promote digitalization, and make infertility treatment fall under national health insurance. He also pledged the country would be carbon neutral by 2050.
But throughout his tenure, the pandemic has continued to dog Suga. In the end, it would be the deadly virus that claimed his administration and made him a caretaker prime minister.
Last Monday, LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai arrived at the Prime Minister’s Office to meet with Suga.
During that meeting, it was later revealed, Suga suggested shaking up the top positions in the party’s executive. Nikai acquiesced.
Suga’s impetus for the bold plan was a proposal by former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, who was set to challenge Suga in the party leadership contest Sept. 29.
Taking aim at Nikai, the longest-serving secretary-general in party history, Kishida, if elected, promised to impose a term limit of up to three consecutive years on party executives.
The promise was favorably received by party members not in Nikai’s faction who have been increasingly irritated with his continued occupation of the post and apparent reluctance to relinquish authority.
Suga began contemplating a replacement for the man sometimes referred to as the “Shadow Shogun.” Usually, a number of lawmakers would jump at the chance for a top position in the party.
But this time, there were few incentives for any to gamble on the posts.
A general election is due by the fall. And considering the Suga administration’s dismal approval ratings and the public’s deepening distrust of the LDP, the party could lose a significant number of seats even if it keeps a majority in the Lower House. What’s more, any new party leadership lineup could be scrapped in just a month or two. Prominent faction leaders urged their followers not to accept any offer.
Even members of Suga’s inner circle opposed the prime minister’s move, which was increasingly being seen as a desperate attempt to hold onto power.
“I pointed out to the prime minister that (the new appointees) would be embroiled (in difficulties),” one senior administration official revealed Friday.
The idea that Suga was willing to cut out Nikai so that he could cling to power was at one point unimaginable. The duo had developed a tight-knit bond going back to Abe’s time in office. Suga valued Nikai’s ability to keep the party in line and was aware of the importance of getting the central government and the ruling party on the same page in policy coordination.
Shortly after Abe decided to leave his post last year, Suga first turned to Nikai for an endorsement in the party leadership contest. In exchange, Suga kept the LDP heavyweight on as secretary-general, essentially a quid pro quo that underscored Nikai had leverage over Suga.
In retrospect, one LDP lawmaker said, “when Suga was talking about personnel lineup changes, he could have been talking about himself.”
Elusive snap election
With his bid to change up the party’s leadership group receiving blowback, dissolving the House of Representatives became the final tool available to the prime minister. Attempting to rally his troops, Suga had considered resorting to the last-ditch move.
It might have been the decisive factor that sunk his flagging administration.
The Mainichi daily published a scoop close to 10:30 p.m. Tuesday that the prime minister intended to dissolve the Diet in mid-September, meaning the Liberal Democratic Party leadership contest would be postponed. Other media soon repeated the news — save one crucial detail: they described the prime minister as only “considering” a snap election.
LDP lawmakers were outraged, believing that Suga was only thinking about protecting his own interests. They feared the public would be even more incensed at the prime minister’s selfishness, and would deliver a devastating loss to the LDP.
“There have been reports about the Lower House dissolution and the LDP executive reshuffle, but the party leadership contest’s schedule has been already decided and I believe the LDP would lose trust if the schedule was changed for selfish, personal reasons,” former defense chief and party stalwart Gen Nakatani said at a faction meeting Wednesday.
“Dissolving the Diet and postponing the presidential election would mean we’re declaring that we’re not going to have an open debate,” tweeted LDP lawmaker Kentaro Sonoura. “If we do that, it’s the end of the LDP.”
Around 9 a.m. Wednesday, Suga appeared in front of reporters to deny the reports.
“I believe we’re not in a situation to dissolve the Lower House, considering the current difficult situation,” Suga said. “I’m also not thinking about pushing back the LDP presidential race.”
At around 3 p.m. Thursday, a rumor emerged that Suga would be visiting LDP headquarters shortly for a sitdown with Nikai.
The thinking among reporters and LDP politicians was that Suga might tell Nikai he would not seek re-election and would step down as party president at the end of his term. But why was the prime minister visiting party headquarters to meet the person he was set to replace?
“It’s a malicious rumor,” a senior administration official said Thursday afternoon in response to questions about a possible decision to step down. “The prime minister was saying ‘I would fight fair and square (in the presidential election).’ I can’t believe someone would spread such a rumor. It’ll only make the party look bad.”
At the time, Suga was reiterating to Nikai his determination to run. An LDP extraordinary board meeting was set for 11:30 a.m. the following day to discuss an executive reshuffle.
Even to his inner circle, Suga had not disclosed his intent to quit the presidential race until Friday morning. Nikai first heard the news from Suga 10 minutes before the executive board meeting.
“Mr. Suga may have thought there was no way he could be the cause of inconvenience in a general election,” an LDP lawmaker hypothesized about his change of heart from Thursday.
Before Suga headed to LDP headquarters Friday, he asked Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, who was on his way to give a morning briefing to reporters, to meet with him.
According to one official familiar with the exchange, Suga notified Kato of his intention there. Suga was resolute.
The chief Cabinet secretary apologized that administration members could not have done more to salvage his administration. The prime minister, in turn, said he was sorry “for causing trouble.”
“As someone who supports the prime minister, I strongly felt again that we’ve been saddling him with the heavy burden of coronavirus measures,” Kato told reporters Friday afternoon.
But the most striking reaction came from Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi. Including Friday evening, Koizumi held meetings with Suga on five consecutive days at the Prime Minister’s Office.
Suga and Koizumi are particularly close, with both having constituencies in Kanagawa Prefecture. The prime minister, who is passionate about achieving carbon neutrality and made the target part of his administration’s policy agenda, has kept Koizumi in the position he took on during the Abe administration’s last Cabinet reshuffle.
During a roughly 12-minute impromptu press briefing Friday evening, the 40-year-old minister disclosed that he had been in constant contact with Suga, even recommending he withdraw from the race to preserve his legacy.
“I have nothing but gratitude toward him,” Koizumi said, choking back tears. “I’m recalling many words of advice he’s given me.”
“I wish he had spoken using his own words, and while there was much criticism from the public that was deserved, it’s undeniable that there are many things that could not have been achieved if Suga were not prime minister.”
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