Japan’s New Prime Minister Not To Significantly Change Country’s Political Course – Analysis
By Penza News
About 74 percent of Japanese residents are positive about the new government formed in mid-September and headed by 71-year-old Yoshihide Suga, says the opinion poll published in Yomiuri newspaper.
At the same time, the disapproval rating for the Cabinet and its new leader was 14 percent. Suga’s stance of carrying on the policy measures and policy line pursued by his predecessor Shinzo Abe was met with approval by 63 percent of respondents, and with disapproval by 25 percent.
34 percent of respondents want the new Cabinet to prioritize measures to cope with the coronavirus. In turn, 23 percent of the survey participants emphasized that the main task for the Cabinet should be economic recovery.
On 16 September 2020, the Japanese parliament approved Yoshihide Suga as the new Prime Minister. 314 out of 462 deputies of the lower house voted for him. He received the majority of votes in the upper house as well.
Two days earlier, Yoshihide Suga had been elected Chairman of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). He has consistently served as secretary general of the cabinet chaired by Shinzo Abe, who announced his desire to leave office due to deteriorating health at the end of August.
Assessing the state’s prospects under the new leadership, William Grimes, Professor of International Relations and Political Science, Pardee School of Global Studies, Boston University, suggested that Yoshihide Suga’s election will have very little impact on the trajectory of Japanese policy.
“Suga is closely aligned with the previous Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, and his intra-party support patterns are also essentially identical. There are two main differences between the two. First is that Abe is much more charismatic and is able to drive public opinion in a way that Suga will probably not be able to do. Second is that much of Abe’s intra-party support was driven by a sense that there was no strong alternative. With Abe’s resignation, that condition no longer holds. While Suga is extremely effective as a party manager, he will likely have to work harder to satisfy intra-party factions that support him,” William Grimes said.
In his opinion, in terms of external politics, Suga will follow the same basic line as Abe: pro-US, pro-free trade, supportive of international organizations.
“However, he is much less experienced in international relations than Abe and much less confident, so he is unlikely to take the kind of leadership role that Abe has assumed in recent years. The other main difference between Abe and Suga in international relation is that Suga does not have the same personal reputation as a historical revisionist or right-winger that Abe had when he became prime minister. In principle, this should remove an obstacle to improved relations with South Korea and China, although I think that their approaches to Japan typically have much more to do with their own domestic politics than with whoever the Japanese leader is,” William Grimes added.
In turn, Lak Chansok, Lecturer and Research Fellow, Department of International Studies, Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP) in Cambodia, Expert at Democracy Promotion Center, Ritsumeikan Center for Asia Pacific Studies, Ritsumeikan APU in Japan, drew attention to the fact that Yoshihide Suga’s victory was quite predictable.
“Suga has been Abe’s right-hand man for approximately nine years: 2006–2007 and 2012–2020. He has long been well known as the powerful policy coordinator in the Abe’s government, who could utilize the centralized power of the Prime Minister’s Office to influence the bureaucrats. Also, among all contenders, Yoshihide Suga was the most trusted by Abe as he pledged to continue Abe’s key policies. Even in the Diet, Suga easily won 314 out of 462 votes on 16 September because of the majority held by the LDP’s ruling coalition. Suga’s landslide victory was expected and thus was criticized as the undemocratic election processes due to Japan’s closed-door politics,” the expert noted.
According to him, Yoshihide Suga succeeded in several key policies including promoting agricultural exports.
“After he won the leadership of the LDP on 14 September, he announced to establish the government agency for promoting digitalization of Japan’s society by the end of this year. Despite numerous challenges ahead, Suga’s reformist policies may lay out a foundation to end the country’s traditional bureaucratic sectionalism. To consolidate his power and regain the Japanese people’s confidence on the LDP, Suga has to materialize his two key promises: to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic and to revitalize Japan’s economic slowdown coupled with the sinking population,” Lak Chansok said, stressing that to boost Japan’s economic growth, his economic policy need to be beyond Abenomics – long-term economic restart plan proposed by Shinzo Abe.
According to Grant Newsham, retired US Marine Colonel, the Suga administration is likely to look a lot like the Abe administration.
“Suga is less intent on revising Japan’s constitution – which was an obsession of Shinzo Abe’s. But in terms of domestic policy I would expect the momentum of the previous administration to continue. There won’t be any striking initiatives in terms of financial, economic, or social policies. It’s hard to imagine what would drive those changes,” the expert said.
“Suga very much represents the so-called ‘entrenched’ interests of Japan’s political, business, and official class. Some critics claim that Japan is a society run by a ruling class – and the citizenry exists to support that ruling class and its well-being. That’s not far off. Just look at Japan’s tax system, for example. Suga won’t see any reason to adjust things to give the ‘average’ citizen a better deal,” Grant Newsham added.
Yoshihide Suga is something of a conservative though without the resentfully nationalist streak that Abe had, he said.
According to the analyst, the country’s relations with foreign partners will generally remain the same.
“Japan still recognizes that the US relationship is indispensable and that relationship will stay close. The new Suga administration also appears set to continue Japan’s involvement in the so-called Quad – the informal grouping of Japan, the US, Australia, and India aiming to resist Chinese expansionism and intimidation. And Japan’s overseas development assistance efforts will continue regionally and globally. Relations with South Korea will remain icy. And don’t expect too much to improve in Japan-North Korean relations,” Grant Newsham said.
In his opinion, Suga is not as obsessed with recovering “the Northern Territories” as was Abe but Suga will try to see what sort of deal can be worked out, “even just incremental progress.”
Tokyo’s relations with China are the big question mark, he added.
“Suga’s administration will try to maintain deep economic ties with China, while trying to ‘decouple’ to some degree. But it will still rely on the Americans to backstop Japan’s defense. Japan is increasingly pressed by the PRC and is quietly terrified of being […] unable to fend off Chinese military pressure on Japan’s own. One concern, of course, is that the ‘pro-China’ camp in Suga’s party will pressure him to accommodate the PRC more than is wise. That is something Japan’s conservatives and many people in Washington worry about. Time will tell,” the former American diplomat said.
Meanwhile, Hironori Fushita, Research Fellow at Japan Institute of International Affairs, remimnded that the new Prime Minister of Japan was elected under a simplified scheme due to the desire of the LDP presidium to avoid a political vacuum and continue the course of Shinzo Abe.
“The Japanese people welcome the new leader. They are well aware that Yoshihide Suga took a number of measures to combat the spread of the coronavirus in the Abe administration, and they also want to continue the current political course,” he said.
“Suga has repeatedly stated that it will continue the foreign policy under the slogan of a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific region’ – on the basis of stable military-political relations with the United States, Japan intends to strengthen strategic ties with countries such as India and Australia, and improve political relations with China and South Korea, ” Hironori Fushita said.
At the same time, in his opinion, it is difficult to expect noticeable progress in Japanese-Russian relations.
“Shinzo Abe had a clear intention to improve relations with Russia until the very end of his reign, […] but Yoshihide Suga does not seem to have that kind of political passion. In other words, Suga is more pragmatic than Abe. Unfortunately, this trait of his character can become a brake on a strategic conversation with Russia,” Hironori Fushita explained.
In turn, Kazuhiko Togo, Former Japanese diplomat and Director of the Institute for World Affairs, Kyoto Sangyo University, stressed that Yoshihide Suga is well versed on all issues but he has never shown his personal ambition to lead the country.
“But when we see how he seized power and what kind of cabinet he has formulated, one is bound to be impressed. He has succeeded in manipulating LDP’s complex power-struggle to gain overwhelming support. The cabinet he formulated reflects amazingly well these complex and subtle LDP power balance, at the same time, is led by ministers who have expertise on issues over which each minister is responsible. It is a stable cabinet ready for action. It gives an impression that Suga is determined to hold his own election within the course of one year and will stay on for 4 years then. He is certainly not just a caretaker,” the ex-diplomat said.
In his opinion, Yoshihide Suga has more experience in domestic politics and has never shown personal leadership in foreign-security policy which was primarily an area where Abe had shining records.
“So the past three weeks of conduct of his foreign-security policy seems to be guided by professional diplomats. It seems to reflect well their cautious and reasonably well balanced approach. Given the expected strong tension between US and China after the US election, emphasis on US policy and FOIP is natural, but dialogue with China is also carefully orchestrated,” Kazuhiko Togo explained.
“East Asia is emphasized but Europe, Russia and South Korea are already in the framework. Let us see with some patience what kind of foreign-security initiative he would be able to demonstrate in the coming years if not coming months,” the expert concluded.