GP Insights # 415, 19 September 2020
On 16 September, the LDP members elected Yoshihide Suga as the successor of Shinzo Abe at the emergency presidential vote called by the governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) after beating Shigeru Ishiba and Fumio Kishida.
After taking office, Suga announced on his official Twitter handle a determination to tear down bureaucratic sectionalism, vested interests and the notorious habit of following precedents while promising to advance regulatory reforms and give birth to a cabinet that works for the people. He has highlighted that the top priority would be the management of COVID and Tokyo Olympics.
What is the background?
First, the change of leadership at a crucial point of Japan's economy: Japan during the recent years, had been facing economic near-stagnation, deflation, and debt, to which Shinzo Abe had introduced a series of fiscal policies and measures to improve employment and economic growth. These policies, popularly called the Abenomics, have failed to garner the growth that was expected, despite being structurally sound. The burden of quick economic outputs would be on the new leadership at a time when consumption, international trade, and other forms of economic activity have declined, and Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, along with Japan have begun to show signs of recession. Suga's priority would be to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic and make a decision on the Tokyo Olympics.
Second, heightened tensions with the regional countries: Japan, during the recent period, has witnessed a turbulent relationship with North Korea, South Korea, and Russia in the immediate neighbourhood. The relations with South Korea specifically has soured in the past months that would stand as a challenge to the new leadership. Suga has vowed to uphold the interests of Abe's aggressive and successful diplomacy.
Third, Abe's legacy, especially his global network with leaders of the other countries: Abe in the past years, has placed Japan in a comfortable position in world politics. Highlights being the Quad, and Abe's role in mediation between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump. Japan is seen as a pillar of liberal democracy in the world, and the style of diplomacy that the new leadership takes would help to maintain it. Suga, known for his ruthless nature, lacks the personal friendships with world leaders that Shinzo Abe possessed. His diplomacy skills are untested.
Fourth, the change in leadership comes at a time when the US-China rivalry is at its peak:
One of the major concerns for Japan would be to manage the US-China rivalry. Considering the facts that the US is Japan's only security ally, and China is its largest trade partner, Suga's immediate diplomatic challenge would include skillfully managing Japan's relations with the US keeping the American presidential election in November in mind, and with China amid ongoing conflicts over trade and territorial issues. The ability to balance these relations would be a test of the new leadership's firm and reliable political instincts.
Fifth, Suga as an experienced and a tough leader. As the longest-serving chief cabinet secretary, Suga is seen as a leader who rose to power with no significant political skills but holds a reputation for discipline, toughness, understanding the machinery of Japan's bureaucracy and intimidating his political opponents or the press. One of his first tasks would be to gain public confidence with the management of the COVID crisis and economic recovery; considering how Shinzo Abe's approval rating had fallen by 30 per cent for the same reasons.
What does it mean?
Yoshihide Suga does not have the luxury of time that Shizo Abe had with Abenomics. Quick wins over grand visions would be at the core of the new leadership. In this aspect, Suga can not just be seen as a replacement that would not deviate from the policies of Shinzo Abe.
The new term has also ignited faction-based politics within the LDP, which would place an additional burden on the leadership to prove their abilities and prove quickly. The sense of urgency and the lack of his own power base within the party could become shortcomings of Suga; however, his record as the tough, and loyal member of Shinzo Abe's cabinet would garner him the support needed to complete his term.