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OP-ED: Where will Japan go from here?

  • Published at 02:56 pm September 19th, 2020
Yoshihide Suga
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga gestures as he is elected as new head of the ruling party at the Liberal Democratic Party's (LDP) leadership election in Tokyo, Japan September 14, 2020. REUTERS

What to expect from Yoshihide Suga

The Japanese National Diet (Kokkai) nominated Yoshihide Suga as the new prime minister of Japan on September 16, after the sudden resignation of post-World War II Japan’s longest serving prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who resigned on August 28 due to health reasons. 

Earlier on September 14, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) elected him as the leader (president) of the LDP to succeed Abe. Suga served as the chief cabinet secretary of Abe’s Cabinet. He had been Abe’s “right-hand man” and was widely considered the architect of Abe’s remarkable consolidation of power within the prime minister’s office, taming factional rivalries within the LDP and bringing Japan’s sprawling but powerful bureaucracy into line.

On his appointment as the prime minister, Suga assured the Japanese people that his first priority would be to fight against the corona pandemic, ie, expand the testing system, secure sufficient medical capacity, and bring everyone under vaccination in the shortest possible time. On the economic front, Suga emphasized the revitalization of the already-ravaged economy, struggling with the long-term effects of the increasing ageing population as well as post-Covid challenges.

He also expressed his determination to accelerate Abe’s most cherished goals, such as pushing for a revision of Japan’s pacifist constitution, ensuring the return of Japanese nationals kidnapped by North Korea in the 1970s and 80s, and sticking to Abe’s stimulus economic formula, Abenomics. 

Political pundits have already dubbed Suga as the “continuity candidate” for passionately pledging to continue his predecessor’s policies. This might have helped Suga secure the favour of the majority of intra-party factions (koenkai) within the LDP, although he does not belong to any of its powerful factions.

Suga is a “self-made” politician without belonging to a dynastic or elite political family, and has been the longest serving chief cabinet secretary of Japan, with a reputation for toughness and discipline. He has first-hand knowledge of the internal functionality of the Japanese government. 

He knows very well how bureaucratic sectionalism prevents development. On his election as the prime minister, Suga also stated that he would push ahead with deregulation and bring an end to ministry sectionalism and prevalent vested interests, promote digitalization with an aim to boost economic efficiency and facilitate post-pandemic economic growth, adopt policies to stimulate agriculture and tourism, and also stop the practice of blindly following past precedents.

All these sound very reasonable and dynamic as approaches.

Nonetheless, whether Suga will be able to stick to his promises is a big question at this honeymoon period of his premiership. Constitutionally, Suga is expected to serve out Abe’s remaining term as premier until September 2021. There is, however, speculation that Suga may call a snap election to consolidate his grip on the faction-ridden LDP, strengthen his hand in domestic politics, and prolong his tenure as prime minister. This also can help the Suga Cabinet escape criticism of being formed without public mandate.

There are, however, formidable challenges awaiting Suga. Japan’s multi-fractured opposition parties have already sensed an opportunity to end the long-term LDP dominance in Japanese politics. To this end, a newly merged opposition party named the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ) was inaugurated on September 15 to offer policy alternatives to that of the Suga administration, and present fresh options to the people.

Japan’s main opposition parties including the CDPJ have already urged Suga to convene an extraordinary session of the Diet soon to debate on major issues such as the fight against the novel coronavirus and measures to revitalize the virus-hit Japanese economy. If the combined opposition forces can forge a real opposition, this may reduce Suga’s clout in domestic politics and even within his own party, the LDP. 

Experience shows that periods of stable and popular leadership in Japan have often been followed by a “revolving door” of weak and short-lived governments. Former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi’s departure in 2006 installed the first Abe government (2006-2007), who resigned after less than a year in office due to poor health. 

This sent the LDP to opposition in the 2008 elections bringing the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) to power. It was only when Abe returned, having an overwhelming majority in the 2012 general elections that stability was restored. Apparently Japan’s main opposition parties are in a hurry to quickly bring an end to the Suga administration. The media, on the other hand, is expected to be more critical about Suga whom they dub as “Iron Wall,” because of his denial towards the media.

On the international front, Suga may have to struggle unlike Koizumi or Abe, who had “truly amazing” diplomatic skills to handle many unpredictable issues and actors. Suga has to prove his competence to address pressing issues which include Japan’s national security strategy as well as new defense program guidelines and negotiations with the US over host-nation support to US forces stationed in Japan.

As a matter of fact, Suga will have to deal either with a re-elected Donald Trump, or the transition to a new US administration.

In the neighbourhood, the new premier has to deal with an unfriendly China with whom Japan has heightened political tensions over many unresolved issues, an unpredictable Kim Jong-un of North Korea who occasionally poses security threats to Japan, next-door neighbour South Korea over historical, legal, and political issues, and unsettled disputes with Russia.

Particularly, the rising tensions between Washington and Beijing have consequences in Japan. Therefore, Suga will have to balance not just between Tokyo and Beijing but between Toyko, Beijing, and Washington. Much depends on how Suga reads the issues and translates them into ground level reality.

We congratulate Yoshihide Suga as the prime minister of Japan from Bangladesh, and expect that the Bangladesh-Japan partnership will reach special heights during his tenure. We also hope that in terms of Japan’s domestic politics, Suga will realize public demands and frustrations to restore public trust in his government. He will not only highlight the legacy of his predecessor’s policy measures, but also clarify his own visions for Japan.

SM Ali Reza is a Professor of Political Science, University of Dhaka. He has a PhD from Osaka University, Japan. He can be reached at [email protected]

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