Commentary / Japan

'Uncle Reiwa' is still not the front-runner to succeed Abe

by Michael Macarthur Bosack

The media is abuzz with reporting on Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga. Ever since earning the nickname “Reiwa Ojisan” (“Uncle Reiwa”) by presenting Japan’s new era name on April 1, news outlets and television programs have been speculating that he could be the successor to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The media whirlwind continued as Suga made a rare trip overseas to Washington and New York earlier this month in what some labeled his diplomatic debut. Many people are now ready to call Suga the front-runner to replace Abe when his run finally ends, but I am not among them.

There is no doubt that Suga is a talented administrator — probably the most capable chief Cabinet secretary in postwar history — but he is not the first in line to become the next prime minister. First and foremost, Suga has not given any formal indication that he wants the job. Still, assuming he does, he has several problems.

He has an undefined policy platform and lacks the natural charisma of other candidates in the field. More importantly, he still needs to cobble together factional support within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to achieve numerical backing he simply does not have right now. At the end of the day, leadership of the government is a numbers game, and Suga will have to do much more politicking over the next couple of years to have a shot at succeeding Abe if that truly his intent.

Observers are not wrong to have confidence that Suga would make a capable prime minister. The chief Cabinet secretary is a challenging position that involves serving as both the prime minister’s chief spokesperson and the de facto No. 2 for government administration. Only a handful of Suga’s predecessors could excel at one role or the other, even fewer both, and almost none with the level of expertise that Suga has displayed.

He has shepherded an ambitious policy agenda that included reinterpreting the Constitution, restructuring decision-making and policy coordination authorities in the government, and addressing Japan’s economic and demographic issues. He has also been a stabilizing influence for the administration through multiple scandals, keeping a steady hand even as other Cabinet ministers faltered.

All the while, Suga has managed other politically contentious portfolios, including measures aimed at reducing the burden of U.S. bases in Okinawa and, more recently, the North Korean abduction issue. In sum, he is extremely effective.

Unfortunately for him, job effectiveness is not the principal determinant in selecting the prime minister. Veteran political scholar Tomohito Shinoda outlined six sources of power for a Japanese prime minister: power base within the party; ties with the bureaucracy; ties with opposition parties; personal popularity; support from the business community; and international reputation (especially with Japan’s key ally, the United States).

Serving at the top of Japan’s bureaucracy for the past six years, Suga certainly has notable ties with senior-ranking bureaucrats, and his new “Reiwa Ojisan” persona lends him a modicum of popularity, but he is still lacking in the other areas. This is especially problematic for him since the most important source of power for a prime minister-hopeful is his or her base within the party.

A prime minister in Japan must hold a “majority of a majority”; that is, the party must hold the majority of seats in the Diet and the prime minister must hold majority support from party members. To get that majority within the LDP, a prime minister-hopeful must gain backing from the party’s many factions. Right now, the LDP is comprised of seven formal factions that command over 80 percent of the LDP’s sitting Diet members.

There’s no way around it: A prospective prime minister must form allegiances with faction heads to secure enough votes from within the party.

Doing so is difficult enough for politicians that already lead their own factions, but it will be especially challenging for Suga, who is an independent within the party. An LDP independent has never become prime minister, in large part because selecting the leader of the government is one of main reasons factions even exist; thus, there is little incentive for party members to go outside factional lines for leadership voting.

While Suga has a small following among other LDP independents, his best shot at this point rests with Abe. On a long shot, Abe could decide to endorse Suga and push his own faction, which happens to be the largest in the LDP, behind Suga because none of his own proteges are ready to run the government. Barring this unusual move, Suga will have to manufacture support within a party that is notoriously loyal to factional lines in determining prime ministers — no small feat.

So if Suga is not the front-runner, who is? Right now, Foreign Minister Taro Kono is best-positioned. He has a prominent Cabinet portfolio and has performed well in the public eye. He has leveraged his ministership in building a strong reputation abroad. Kono’s political identity as a maverick within the party plays well with the public, but Kono is also savvy enough to straddle the line between the LDP’s old guard and new class. Importantly, Kono’s home faction, currently run by Finance Minister Taro Aso, is the second-largest in the LDP.

Aso has already had his shot at prime minister back in 2008, so the most likely individual to gain the faction’s backing will be Kono for his popularity and competency. It is also important to note here that before Aso, the faction’s leader was Yohei Kono, Taro Kono’s father.

Following Kono is a wide field of other candidates. Leading that pack are Fumio Kishida and Shigeru Ishiba. Both those men were at different points considered the front-runners for succeeding Abe, but Ishiba’s best window of opportunity ended with the party’s most recent presidential election in September 2018.

Meanwhile, Kishida’s chronic risk aversion has seen him slide from prominence over the years. Despite these setbacks for the two, both still have stronger intra-party support than Suga.

There are others in the field like Katsunobu Kato, Hiroshige Seko and Tomomi Inada who do not have a realistic shot at winning over the party but could potentially garner support from their home factions.

As for the ever-popular Shinjiro Koizumi, he is still playing his middle game and is unlikely to jump into the fray for the prime ministership too early, but he is the best-postured LDP independent to become prime minister owing to his immense popularity and the strong work he has done to build a base among the LDP’s younger members.

What this demonstrates though is that the field of candidates vying for post-Abe leadership is far and wide. The news has done much to highlight “Reiwa Ojisan,” but that alone will have little bearing on Suga’s position in the race to succeed Abe. Only time will tell if he is able to parlay his newfound media image into the political capital necessary to move up in the party’s line of succession, but the capable chief Cabinet secretary still has miles to go to posture himself for the country’s highest post.

Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. Previously, he was the deputy chief of government relations at headquarters, U.S. Forces, Japan.