Suga’s Heat Level: A new face in Japan’s political front row places a blazing intrigue on the country’s future

  • + Yoshihide Suga replaces Shinzo Abe after stepping down as Japan’s Prime Minister 
  • + Increased competition between members of the Liberal Democratic Party but only one courageous 
  • + Materialising peaceful diplomatic relations in Japan’s foreign affairs
suga japan elections
Financial Times

Why is Suga’s heat level hot?

Answer: He has become the 99th Prime Minister of Japan.

Last Friday 28th of August 2020 Shinzo Abe announced that he was stepping down as Japan’s Prime Minister, due to ulcerative colitis. He stated that the treatment would conflict with his duties as Prime Minister if he were to continue in office until the term ended in September 2021. Subsequent to this decision, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) had to find a new figure that would lead its political party. Japan is a parliamentary system and as such a leadership contest had to take place within the LDP party. The latter is the biggest party both in the upper and lower house of parliament, hence the chosen leader would by default become Japan’s Prime Minister. An abbreviated process took place, where only members of parliament and senior party officials got a vote. Indeed, given that Abe and his allies have a big control of the seats in parliament, the process took only a couple of weeks. 

Indeed, on September 16th, the House of Diet confirmed the 71-year-old Yoshihide Suga, as the 99th Prime Minister of Japan. For many, Suga has become the new Japanese Jack Ma; both very successful people that came from modest backgrounds. From an upbringing on a strawberry farm, employment in a cardboard factory, and political start as the seventh secretary to a Diet member, up to becoming Prime Minister. Suga is the first leader who holds a quintessential character, unlike preceding recent leaders who all came from a type of elite. 

Unfortunately, the new leader is currently in a weak position against the unpromising backdrop of the pandemic. However, he has been initially elected to serve out the remainder of Mr Abe’s term as party leader until the next elections in a year’s time. Thus, one of his first decisions will have to be whether to call a general election and seek an electorate mandate of his own. Though, he needs quick results if he wants to remain in power due to Abe’s unpopular programme. Will he or will he not step down from Abe’s eight-year train? Let’s look into it.  

Who is changing Suga’s temperature? 

Answer: Ambiguity of current times 

During Abe’s legacy, the former Prime Minister did not fully do everything he promised he would. Firstly, he said that he would revive Japan’s economy and bring inflation up to 2%, however, still today it is around 0%. Secondly, he planned to sign a peace treaty with Russia and settle a territorial dispute over northern territories, and he also failed to do so. Lastly, the supposed revision of the Japanese Constitution did never happen. These big concrete results perfectly vindicate the weaknesses and limitations of Abe’s legacy. Nonetheless, it must not be forgotten that Abe’s era was a period of relative stability, for example, Abe operated as Prime Minister for eight years straight, whereas previously Japan had had six Prime Ministers in six years, and it has still been a period of strong financial time. 

Finances under Abe are known as “Abenomics”, meaning the effective use of monetary and fiscal policy whilst creating a strategy to foster economic growth. However, promising economic stimulus whilst increasing consumption taxes is basically incompatible, and as a result, led the economy into recession. To this end, Suga caused a stir during his leadership campaign when he said that the country would need further consumption taxes. Thankfully, he, later on, stepped down on his words and said that Japan would need to raise the consumption tax for a decade. What this shows is that economic prosperity is not one of his priorities given that without any tax adjustment it would be impossible to lower the 270% of GDP debt that Japan carries today. For this reason, business leaders are anxious about the fact that their interests do not seem to be the focus. 

The only scapegoat left for Suga that would transform him from an effective behind the scenes politician to an inspiring national leader is Covid-19 pandemic. The big difference between Abe and Suga is that back in time Abe’s policies were untested, he offered loads of hope. But right now, everyone knows that Suga was Abe’s right-hand, hence many fear that he will follow Abe’s unpopular manual. The only room open to renew the spirit of an optimist is his sober and mature Mr. fix-it image, that could turn into an advantage in a crisis like this. 

What is driving Suga? 

Answer: Courage, determination and re-election. 

In terms of foreign affairs, Suga’s top priority is on maintaining Japan’s alliance with the US. Moreover, unlike other LDP colleagues, he is likely to be less hostile to China, though he does aim to acquire the capacity for a preemptive strike against a potential North Korean missile launch. However, this could jeopardise the pacifist purpose that Japan’s Constitution targets. Suga’s biggest foreign policy challenge will be to determine how to handle the rising tensions between Washington and Beijing, ranging from trade to technology and Taiwan. Nevertheless, at this point in time domestic affairs should be his focus. 

Right now he should first set up a stable government. Nevertheless, after years of domination by Abe, there is a lot of competition for leadership within the party. At the moment the choice of Mr Suga is not the end of the story, as he is basically just a “replacement” for Abe before the next elections. So the real question could be who is Mr Suga’s, right-hand man? Or if we put it differently, and Suga would really want to be re-elected in the following elections, it is for him the perfect moment to be in the national spotlight, if in the upcoming months he is successfully handling the Covid-19 pandemic and maintaining the economic stability that Abe’s legacy left. Above all, Suga has demonstrated bravery, many LPD colleagues decided to stay out of the leadership contest this time, as they feared that the pandemic’s consequences could backfire on them. Despite knowing the negative consequences of becoming a leader at this moment, he had the courage to do so. 

Japanese or not, what does this mean for you? 

Answer: Stability in Indo-Pacific diplomatic relations. 

It is the first time after 2012, that the international sphere sees a new face leading Japan. In such times of uncertainty, novel leaders might claim that it is a fearful move whilst others can see it as a new ray of hope. On the bright side, it is evident, by all the aforementioned, that the likelihood of Suga following Abe’s legacy is very high. He has demonstrated to have a milder attitude than other colleagues who, for example, carried more hostile attitudes towards China. He is willing to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific and aims at settling disputes, such as the wrangles with Seoul over wartime history. Fortunately, this means peace and stability for diplomacy. On the other side, external elements, such as the victory or defeat of Mr Trump in November’s US elections will definitely shape the political environment. Hence, the security alliance between Japan and the US could be threatened, but only time will say.