Japan will say sayonara to the Shinzo Abe era and welcome Yoshihide Suga with a kon’nichiwa. After eight years as prime minister, Abe will now officially resign, giving way to Suga to be his successor. On day one, Suga will grapple with many challenges on different fronts, including the Coronavirus pandemic and an economic downturn. So, what does Suga’s ascent to the top of Mount Fuji mean for the world’s third-largest economy, the yen, and 126 million people?
Yoshihide Suga: A Primer
Yoshihide Suga has worked in Japanese politics nearly his entire adult life. After finishing university, Suga worked behind the scenes in the upper house of the National Diet for more than a decade. He chose to pursue his political career in 1986, starting at the local level. Ten years later, he was elected to the Diet and was re-elected multiple times. Suga climbed the ranks, serving as Minister for Internal Affairs and Communications and Chief Cabinet Secretary. After Abe announced his resignation, Suga tossed his name in the hat for the presidency of the Liberal Democratic Party and won with 377 of the 534 total votes. Many speculated that he was already being groomed to succeed Abe when he was chosen to represent Japan in 2019 when he met with Vice President Mike Pence.
Suga and Spice – And Everything Nice
Will Japan go through an ideological transform with Suga at the helm? At this time, it is highly unlikely.
When Abe was prime minister, Suga played an instrumental role in crafting public policy, from the economy to foreign policy. He led the government’s efforts to boost tourism, attract foreign workers, slash mobile telephone rates, and support the Bank of Japan’s (BoJ) ultra-aggressive measures to fight deflation. Suga was also a key advisor to Abe on the nation’s Coronavirus response, lamenting on the country’s bureaucracy that prevented Tokyo from taking better action to stop spreading the highly infectious respiratory illness.
Put simply, a lot of what Japan experienced under Abe, Suga helped put together. Early reports, citing sources close to Suga, have indicated that not much would change. Even some members of Abe’s Cabinet would stay in their positions, including Finance Minister Taro Aso, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, LDP secretary-general Toshihiro Nikai, and Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura. He has also pledged to maintain Abenomics, an economic doctrine of aggressive monetary policy, fiscal stimulus, and growth. The Nikkei Asian Review did note that there might be some divergence, reporting that party officials believe he will be less fiscally aggressive and will champion a weaker yen.
Could Suga dissolve the lower house of parliament and call snap elections next month? While this would afford him a full three-year term as LDP head, Suga does not seem to be cheerleading the possibility, telling reporters:
“What’s important now is to contain the pandemic while also reviving the economy. I don’t think we can immediately (dissolve the lower house) just because the pandemic is contained. That’s a decision that must be made looking comprehensively at various factors.”
Pass the Suga
Will four decades of political experience be enough to turn the country around? Before the COVID-19 public health crisis, Japan has tried to overcome many hurdles, such as a swelling budget deficit, an aging population, a deteriorating health care system, and geopolitical tensions. In the post-Coronavirus world, the bombardment is all these problems and a pandemic that Suga will contend with during his time as head of state. As the old Japanese proverb goes, “Different body, same mind.” Suga is a continuation of Abe. Whether this is a good thing or not will be decided during the next election – whenever Suga decides it would be appropriate.
Read more from Andrew Moran.