Yoshihide Suga was elected the 99th prime minister of Japan on Wednesday, succeeding Shinzo Abe who was forced to step down unexpectedly because of ill health. Suga was picked to ensure stability and continuity in government and policy. That is a mixed mandate given the uncertainties that Japan faces and its lengthening list of internal and external challenges. Suga has proven to be a capable, hardworking politician throughout a long and successful career, one that many thought would end with his tenure as the longest-serving chief Cabinet secretary in Japanese history (a longevity that matched that of Abe in the Prime Minister’s Office). Maintaining a good work ethic is only part of his new job, however — he must also have the vision and creativity that are necessary to surmount the country’s many challenges. Here, the verdict is less certain.
Suga’s personal story is a remarkable tale. A self-made man, the son of an Akita strawberry farmer with no political connections, Suga supported himself as he attended night school at Hosei University. He served as secretary to an LDP politician and then became a local city assemblyman in Yokohama before moving to the national legislature. He was a member of the first Abe Cabinet, serving as minister of communications. Suga remained loyal to Abe after illness forced him from the prime minister’s office in 2007; for that devotion he was rewarded with the job of chief Cabinet secretary, the second most powerful person in government, when Abe returned as prime minister in 2012.
Suga won the top spot for himself in a parliamentary vote this week in which he secured large majorities in both the Lower and Upper House. His ascension to the Prime Minister’s Office was assured after he prevailed in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) presidential ballot on Monday — in a contest where he won another mandate after claiming 377 of 534 votes.
Suga’s election victories were assured. After first denying that he had any interest in the top slot, he was drafted by LDP leaders as the person best suited to continue the Abe program. That intent is evident in Suga’s administration. Eight of Abe’s 20 Cabinet ministers kept their jobs in the administration unveiled Wednesday, and another seven either moved to new Cabinet posts or were reappointed to those they held in previous administrations. Kingmakers retained their positions: Taro Aso, head of the party’s second largest faction, continues as deputy prime minister and finance minister and Toshihiro Nikai, head of his own faction, remains LDP secretary general. The selection of Abe’s younger brother, Nobuo Kishi, as defense minister — his first Cabinet post — strengthens Suga’s claim to his predecessor’s support (if that was ever in doubt).
He will need all the help he can get. Suga faces imposing challenges: Most of them would occupy any occupant of the Prime Minister’s Office, but some are his alone. The immediate concerns are obvious: keeping the COVID-19 outbreak under control and getting the economy, which is suffering a historical contraction, back on track. The postponed 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games are another priority. Suga said that he wants to promote deregulation and structural reform, the so-called “third arrow” in the Abenomics quiver and the one that is believed to have never truly taken flight.
On foreign policy, he must keep strong the relationship with the United States — a tricky assignment given the special relationship that Abe had with U.S. President Donald Trump — while stabilizing and advancing relations with China. Both are difficult given tensions between Washington and Beijing and the extraordinary churn in geopolitics, but they are even more of a challenge for Suga, whose foreign policy experience is limited. A comparison with Abe’s efforts — and unquestioned successes — in this arena will shine an even brighter light on his successor’s shortcomings.
Suga’s career has been marked by hard work and pragmatism. He knows how to maneuver in and among the bureaucracy. But those efforts have been in the service of someone else’s agenda. This is his potentially biggest weakness. Suga has no support base of his own and he never joined a faction. It is easier to push initiatives as a member of the LDP’s biggest faction, as Abe was, or when he has the public behind him, as Junichiro Koizumi did. The effort to highlight Suga’s connection to the people since he declared his candidacy has only underscored how much work has to be done on this front.
Suga’s reported preference for solving problems that impact ordinary citizens — reducing phone bills, increasing day care centers or promoting tourism — should help him make that all-important connection to the public. Addressing those concerns will go a long way to meeting his most important job requirement: ensuring an LDP victory in the next general election. Abe led his party to six consecutive national election triumphs.
Suga says he is focused on the COVID-19 crisis and the economy, and isn’t thinking about ballots. Those are good priorities. Dealing with them successfully will win the public support that will power his party to election victory. It is a tough assignment that will demand skill, hard work and a fair bit of luck. Abe had all three — Suga must hope that he does, too.
The Japan Times Editorial Board