17 September 2020

Continuity and Change: How Japan’s new leader is likely to strike a balance between both

While newly-elected Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga represents a continuation of Shinzo Abe’s administrative stability, he is also simultaneously seen as a contrast from Abe in certain aspects of policy-making and personality.

By Avantika Deb

In a surprise announcement on 28 August, Japan’s long-term prime minister Shinzo Abe revealed that he will be stepping down due to a flare-up of ulcerative colitis, a chronic disease that he has been battling with for several years. The election to select the next prime minister and ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leader was held in the National Diet - the country's parliament - shortly afterwards on 14 September, where Chief Cabinet Secretary and Abe’s right-hand man Yoshihide Suga won a landslide victory securing 377 out of 534 votes (about 70 per cent); top rivals for the race included Policy Council Chairman Fumio Kishida who obtained 89 votes and former defence minister Shigeru Ishiba who received 68.

Hailing from a village in Akita prefecture with no prior political connections, Yoshihide Suga gradually worked his way up in Japanese politics over the years, all while maintaining a low-profile. He started his career in 1975 as a secretary of a Lower House member and honed his political acumen while functioning as PM Abe’s aide for around eight years. While he had remained behind the scenes for the better part of his political career, Suga gained prominence in the public eye in 2019 when he became the one to unveil Japan’s new imperial era ‘Reiwa’ to mark the enthronement of Emperor Naruhito. His rise to power comes at a particularly difficult time as Japan grapples with an economic downturn triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as political tensions with China. However, Suga’s popularity seems to have increased significantly within a short period; the major LDP factions quickly formed a consensus to select him in the Diet, while more than 50 per cent of the public surveyed in a national poll in early September were in favour of him becoming prime minister. This is likely due to the fact that Suga has indicated intentions to continue on the path that Abe had laid, and amid the current uncertainty, people seem to prefer continuity over an abrupt policy change.

Japan is often perceived as a country that eschews sudden reforms; Suga is thus viewed as a stable crisis manager capable of handling the ongoing tough circumstances. He has already announced that he will pursue certain goals that were key to the Abe administration, including a signature economic policy dubbed ‘Abenomics’, a revision of Japan’s pacifist constitution, facilitating the return of abducted Japanese citizens from North Korea and of course, successfully battling the COVID-19 outbreak.

However, despite Suga’s indications of maintaining the status quo, policy changes during his term cannot be ruled out entirely since he had been involved in noticeable reforms during the Abe administration. He was responsible for helping Abe push through controversial security laws that allowed the Japanese military to participate in overseas combat missions, as well as a law allowing an increase in the number of foreign workers permitted in Japan. It is widely believed that Suga was also responsible for influencing Abe to shift his focus on the country’s economy during his second term in office rather than adopting a nationalist approach that did not bode well during his first stint in 2006-07. More importantly, Suga has already expressed an interest in pursuing some of his own policies, such as greater digitalisation, initiatives to spread resources outside urban areas and expanding the national health insurance system to include the cost of infertility treatments, and to that end, he intends to venture the promotion of people fit to carry out those policies. Suga’s active involvement and years of experience in policy-making place him in an advantageous position when it comes to implementing reforms in a delicate manner.

For the time being at least, Suga appears to have secured a decent support base within the LDP, the ruling coalition Komeito, as well as the public. To many, PM Suga represents a continuation of Abe’s administrative stability, but at the same time, he also represents a contrast from Abe as a leader, owing to his humble background as opposed to Abe’s privileged political family background. Japan’s new prime minister thus remains poised to attain new administrative goals, backed by support from both the Parliament and the people, but it remains to be seen how he tackles combined economic and foreign policy challenges which are further complicated by COVID-19.

Avantika Deb is an India-based political and security risk analyst covering East Asia.