Former Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga after hearing he has been elected president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, making him a virtual shoo-in for the premiership. A vote will be held in the Diet on Wednesday. Photo: AFP

In a result that surprised precisely nobody, Yoshihide Suga became the head of Japan’s ruling party on Monday afternoon.

Voted in as the new president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, Suga is now a virtual shoo-in for prime minister. That will be confirmed after a parliamentary vote on Wednesday.

The LDP controls the lower house of the Diet and has a majority in the upper house, with its coalition partner Komeito.

The 71-year-old farmer’s son, upon learning of his victory, stood up and gave a solemn bow to party members gathered in a Tokyo hotel, then thanked his predecessor, Shinzo Abe.  

That was an appropriate gesture for a man who many expect to be Abe #2. Suga had previously served for almost eight years as Abe’s cabinet secretary and was widely seen as the outgoing leader’s right-hand man and enforcer.

Suga is known to have been anointed by LDP bosses and was advantaged by the election methodology. With the plebiscite being restricted to sitting lawmakers and local party chapter heads, officially due to Covid-19, the LDP’s million-strong rank-and-file were excluded.

The vote count took just over one hour and only 535 ballots had to be counted.

The outcome had been widely predicted, as it was relatively easy for Japanese media and analysts to canvas party members and faction heads to find out who they were backing.

A special edition of a newspaper reporting about Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga winning in the Liberal Democratic Party presidential election in Tokyo on September 14, 2020. Photo: AFP/The Yomiuri Shimbun

Snap election expected

Suga had taken on two of the party’s young – or rather, younger guns – in a not exactly ferocious campaign, winning a clear majority of 377 votes. Behind him were former Defense Minister Fumio Kishida with 89 votes and former Foreign Minister Shigeru Ishiba with 68.

Abe, who has recently faced plunging popularity ratings and is overshadowed by a range of scandals, announced his resignation last month, citing ill health. He has suffered for years from a chronic stomach condition – an illness which was the ostensible reason for him stepping down from his first term as prime minister in 2007.

However, the season of Japanese politicking may not be over just yet.  

A general election is set for October next year, but Suga is widely expected to call a snap election as early as October or November this year. That is expected to shore up his own position as national leader and take advantage of a currently disorganized opposition.

In contrast to the high-born Abe, Suga has proved that the leadership of the conservative LDP can go to a commoner.

“I came from an agricultural family,” he said in his acceptance speech, in a message that may well have been aimed at Japan’s Everyman. With no family connections to politics, “I started from zero, with nothing, but now I am the leader of the LDP, which has much tradition and history.”

Manic networker

Although Suga grew up in the countryside, he first entered politics in the port city of Yokohama. His ability to win a seat in a place where he had no network illustrates how effective he is as a political operator. He is known to be diligent, disciplined and a manic networker.

Suga was “quiet but worked very hard,” Abe said after the votes were counted on Monday. “I observed him for nearly eight years and I am convinced he is the right choice.”

As a long-time Abe loyalist, Suga is not expected to make any significant changes to his predecessor’s policy. Continuity looks assured. That should reassure US President Donald Trump who has enjoyed an unusually close relationship with Abe, who tied Tokyo ever-more tightly to Washington on both the defense and economic fronts.

Indeed, on Monday, Suga opened his acceptance speech with an expression of “heartfelt gratitude” toward his predecessor and demanded an ovation for Abe.

As cabinet secretary, he took a firm grip on both the media and the bureaucracy, while shielding Abe from scandals. In his acceptance speech, he hinted at upgrading governance.

“We have to get rid of an overly compartmentalized bureaucratic system,” he stated. “We should have a more efficient government.”

He also hinted at a cabinet reshuffle, which is expected on Wednesday following the Diet vote. “We should have a cabinet that is working for the Japanese people,” he said.

Yoshihide Suga’s international credentials are not overwhelming, and he’s not known for his sense of humor. Photo: AFP/The Yomiuri Shimbun

No barrel of laughs

These are certain things his experience clearly qualifies him to do. Suga is clearly a master of Japanese technocracy. His international credentials, however, are less clear – but he is in the picture, said one pundit.

“He went with the prime minister on all but one of his overseas trips and meetings, so he knows all the issues,” Yasuo Naito, editor of Tokyo-based newspaper Japan Forward, told Asia Times.

A lover of golf and fishing who keeps himself svelte with a daily regimen of sit ups, Suga appears to have minimal charisma and no apparent sense of humor. And his close association with Abeian policies suggests a lack of independent political imagination.

Suga is “yesterday’s lunch, re-heated” one poster sniffed on social media.

Speaking Sunday, Suga made clear that loose Abe-era monetary and fiscal policies will continue – indeed, could be ramped up. When asked if there was a limit to bond issuances in a televised debate, Suga said: “I don’t think so.”

However, he distanced himself from one notorious Abeian policy: consumption tax hikes.

In October 2019, Abe raised the consumption tax from 8% to 10%. The effect was almost immediate with GDP for the October-December quarter shrinking 6.3%, year-on-year. That followed an earlier hike on Abe’s watch, from 5% to 8% in 2014, which also led to a GDP contraction. 

The large Olympic rings symbol in Tokyo on August 6, 2020. The country’s next leader will have some tough decisions to make on the sporting extravaganza. Photo: AFP/Behrouz Mehri

Facing the issues

Speaking Monday, Suga said he saw no need for another consumer tax within the next 10 years. The broader question is whether he has the imagination and the gumption to deal with major near- and long-term national issues.

These include overcoming the stubborn Covid-19 pandemic; successfully hosting the Summer Olympics next year, an event which is far from a done deal; navigating Japan safely through the trade war raging between its strategic ally the US and top trade partner China; reforming a reform-resistant Japan Inc and somehow addressing the country’s democratic plunge.

Though the next general election is not until October 2021, widespread speculation in Japan, buttressed by recent comments from Defense Minister Taro Kono and Finance Minister Taro Aso, has it that Suga may call a snap general election in the next couple of months to show he is not simply a caretaker prime minister.

Such a move would be boosted by the feel-good factor common to early leaders and would grant Suga credibility as a leader chosen by the country as a whole, rather than simply a narrow plebiscite of LDP insiders.  

“Because the opposition is disorganized, this is a big chance for the LDP to win a sweeping victory,” Naito said. “After that, Suga would have more than official power – he would have real power.”

True colors

“It is the same in US politics – the new leader has a rise in popularity before the polls start going down,” added another Japanese source who is not a fan of the LDP. “For Suga, it is now or never.”

And if Suga masters that election, it seems likely he will put his own stamp on politics, rather than slavishly following Abe’s moves.

“If you look at his career background, he has been extraordinary in many senses so I guess he has his own character, though that was not seen when he was just spokesperson,” said Lim Eun-jung, a Japan watcher at South Korea’s Kongju National University.

“But, as he consolidates his power and wins stable support, I guess he will reveal his true colors, though I don’t know what they will be.”