A little like Britain’s Conservative party, Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party exists to govern, rather than being animated by a single ideological mission.
Always a broad church of competing ideas – in domestic affairs, at times favouring paternalistic interventionist government, or small-scale deregulation; in foreign policy, fluctuating between alliance-focused proactivism and UN-centered non-interventionism – the party has pursued different approaches depending on the political mood at home and the predisposition of individual leaders.
Now, in the aftermath of Shinzo Abe’s resignation as prime minister, it is worth considering where the country might be heading under its new leader, Yoshihide Suga.
In the internal contest to become the next president of Japan’s governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Suga easily beat his two rivals, former foreign minister Fumio Kishida and former defence minister Shigeru Ishiba – a reflection of the skill with which Suga has been able to manage the party machine. With overwhelming backing among five of the party’s seven political factions and strong support among the party’s prefectural chapters, and with the LDP commanding a majority in both houses of the Japanese Diet, Suga was easily confirmed on September 16 as Japan’s next prime minister. Having served for eight years as Abe’s chief cabinet secretary, Suga was seen as the continuity candidate and is closely associated with Abe’s signature ‘Abenomics’ policy of monetary and fiscal easing and structural reform.
Suga remains a consummate political insider, well versed in the intricacies of internal party politics and parliamentary manoeuvring. He has a reputation for careful, long-term planning and will be looking to build up support for his premiership and to enhance the reputation of an LDP, battered by political scandals, public perceptions that the government has handled COVID-19 poorly and the challenges of dealing with persistent deflation, a ballooning national debt and slow economic growth.
In diplomatic affairs, Suga, like most chief cabinet secretaries is relatively inexperienced and is therefore unlikely to make any sharp departures from Abe’s approach of foreign policy proactivism and a traditional reliance on the US-Japan alliance.
He has already made it clear that he will resist any efforts by China to challenge Japan’s territorial or security interests, and he is likely to turn to Abe for advice on other foreign policy matters. One area in which a Suga administration may seek to engineer a foreign policy breakthrough is on North Korea. In May last year, Suga visited Washington for talks with senior Trump officials on North Korean issues and he has made it clear that he is prepared, in principle, to meet with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, as a means of opening the door to normalized bilateral relations.
As a relatively self-effacing, non-ideological politician, Suga’s policy priorities are not immediately discernible. He can be expected to focus domestically on providing support for small and medium sized industries, rural revitalization, consolidation of Japan’s network of local banks and supply-side focused economic reforms, including a possible increase in the minimum wage.
While likely to continue the thrust of Abenomics, particularly the loose monetary policy pursued by Haruhiko Kuroda, governor of the Bank of Japan, Suga is something of a deficit hawk and so may want to explore options for cutting the national debt.
Neoliberal-style deregulation initiatives are therefore likely to be attractive to Suga, particularly in the telecommunications sector which he previously managed in his former role as communications minister. He is a strong backer of increased tourism and may be inclined to revisit the issue of migration, an area in which he has already fostered a modest opening of the Japanese labour market to foreign workers.
Suga will need to be careful to win public backing for his new role as prime minister. There is a risk that the LDP presidential contest will have been seen by the electorate as insufficiently open and transparent, given that the election was not open to the full party membership: the party argued, somewhat implausibly that there was insufficient time to organize a full ballot of all members.
Consequently, Suga may be tempted to call a snap general election to the lower house of parliament, hoping to capitalize on the weakness of a largely ineffective and unpopular opposition party, the Constitutional Democratic Party. Even though the opposition has benefited from a recent merger with a smaller rival party, and the selection of Yukio Edano as the new party leader, its numerical clout is limited, with only 106 out of 465 seats in the House of Representatives, and just 43 out of 235 seats in the House of Councillors.
If Suga is able to deliver a clear general election win he can legitimize his leadership in the eyes of the electorate and stamp his own authority on the government by making a more sweeping set of cabinet appointments. In the meantime, the only surprise in the cabinet he appointed after becoming prime minister is the choice of Nobuo Kishi, Abe’s younger brother, as defence minister, further evidence that Suga wishes to emphasize his debt to the outgoing prime minister.
As the son of a strawberry farmer from rural Akita prefecture, Suga’s history of relative hardship and self-reliance is likely to appeal to the electorate. As the public face of the government’s announcement of the new ‘Reiwa’ era, marking the transition from Emperor Akihito to Naruhito, Suga has had an accessible, albeit somewhat dour image in the eyes of the electorate, and his popularity now exceeds those of his rivals, Ishiba and Kishida. But this needs to be balanced against his image as a party backroom fixer. Suga places a premium on loyalty and reportedly is not above exacting retribution on those perceived to have broken faith by wielding the power of personnel appointment punitively against those deemed disloyal.
With the government’s perceived poor handling of COVID-19 having undermined the outgoing Abe administration’s popularity, Suga will be keen to distance himself from past policy failures. He has already hinted at a reorganization of the health ministry, widely judged to have been ineffective in combating the virus.
One feature of Abe’s rule closely associated with his political identity – the unrealized goal of revising Japan’s pacifist constitution, resolution of territorial claims left over from the Second World War, the explicit revival of national pride and fractious debates over history with Japan’s neighbours, most notably with South Korea and China – is unlikely to have as much prominence under a Suga cabinet.
Constitutional revision may remain a long-term goal given the need for the LDP to maintain support from smaller right-wing parties such as Nippon Ishin no Kai, the Japan Innovation Party, but the government lacks the numbers in parliament to make such a revision a realistic option.
The new prime minister has been non-committal in his public remarks when reflecting on historical issues and we may be seeing a shift back to a more pragmatic, less ideologically assertive form of Japanese politics, one which is less divisive at home and abroad but which is also grounded in the same gradualist, incremental approach associated with many past Japanese prime ministers.