As PM Suga resigns, the world watches Japan's leadership race

Japan is troubled by a lacklustre Covid-19 response and questions about how swiftly the economy can grow in the future. Can a new prime minister change the game?




Taro Kano: will he be the successor to Suga?


In what is seen as a surprise announcement, Prime Minister Suga of Japan has announced plans to resign following widespread criticism over his handling of the pandemic, adding that he would not campaign for re-election as leader of the Liberal Democratic Party. “Since I became prime minister a year ago, dealing with the coronavirus has been at the center of my efforts,” Suga, 72, said in a brief statement. “Dealing with the virus while campaigning for the election would require sizable energy. I realized I could not possibly handle both, and have chosen one.”


This brings to an end a premiership that has lasted just about a year. Japan has had six prime ministers in as many years before the record eight-year tenure of Shinzo Abe, Suga’s predecessor. But before that, the prime ministership was often described as a “revolving door.” Suga is expected to stay on until his successor is chosen in the party election scheduled for Sept. 29.


Suga’s resignation is attributable in large part to public dissatisfaction with the government’s pandemic response, divisions over the decision to hold the Tokyo Olympics at a sensitive time, and his reticence as a communicator. As a man belonging to no particular faction in the ruling party, Prime Minister Suga’s fate largely rested on his ability to keep faith with the public. As his ratings fell, the weakness of his position was accentuated by the absence of a strong faction support base within the LDP. Some even call this “the Olympic curse”— every PM who has opened an Olympics in Japan has left office the same year. Markets surged on the news that Suga would not seek a new term, in the belief that another premier would do a better job of marshaling the world’s No. 3 economy.


The unfortunately uncharismatic PM, born to a family of strawberry farmers, failed to connect with the public on key issues at a critical time. The LDP under Suga suffered defeat in this year’s regional elections and lost the mayoral race in Yokohama, the prime minister’s adopted political hometown. The stakes are high for the LDP, which has dominated Japanese politics since decades. It has to select the next president at the end of this month and face a general election later in the year under the new leader.


Whoever becomes the next LDP leader is virtually assured of becoming prime minister, given the party’s dominance in parliament. The new LDP leader and hence prime minister inherits a daunting set of challenges, including planning for two national elections. The Liberal Democrats have been at the helm of affairs in Japan for almost the entire post-war era. The opposition parties, including the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), have been in disarray after being blamed for the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011.


The outgoing PM has stated that he intends to back Taro Kono, the popular minister in charge of the nation’s vaccination rollout, to succeed him. In a nationwide survey conducted by Kyodo News, 31.9% of respondents said Kono was their top pick to become Japan’s next Prime Minister. Meanwhile, 26.6% of voters supported Ishiba’s candidacy, while 18.8% said they would vote for former foreign minister Kishida. Both Taro Kono and Fumio Kishida have served as foreign minister. Each has first-hand experience of managing relations with Japan’s principal ally, the U.S., and its largest trading partner, China. Former internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi could also enjoy a boost after local media reported former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will be backing her. If successful, this would see her become Japan's first female prime minister.


COVID-19 has injected fluidity into Japanese politics. The weeks ahead will be full of political maneuverings to see which candidate will prevail in the party contest and how much of a dent the opposition can make in the LDP’s sizable majority in the Diet. The LDP is caught between a desire for continuity even as it becomes aware of the need for a leader who can articulate a broader political vision with compassion and conviction. This was a gift that Abe had in abundance. He coupled this with his flagship economic policy, "Abenomics," which still forms the backbone of Japanese economic thinking. The somewhat opaque nature of much of the nation's political elite is increasingly falling from favor. The challenge in finding the right leader is by no means exclusive to the LDP or Japan. Across the world, leaders who are strong on policy but who struggle to articulate it frequently find themselves in a downward spiral on ratings, irrespective of competence.


But the churn of Japanese politics also opens more fundamental questions. The US and other allies are watching closely, hoping to see a leader who can promise stability and continuity at a critical time. Domestically, the public wants reassurance that the new LDP leadership will be able to restore public trust in the government’s ability to control the pandemic and convey responsiveness to the public’s concerns. The new leader will also have to manage voices in the party who see Taiwan’s security as an existential issue for Japan, which relies on the island for the semiconductors that drive its high-tech products. The CCP views Taiwan as its territory, and its “wolf warrior” spokespersons are often seen warning Tokyo against meddling in China’s internal affairs.


All of this makes for a difficult balancing act. Longer term, Japan will have to grapple with the consequences of being the world’s oldest population, the rise of a belligerent China, and the challenge to sustain demand through measures other than fiscal stimulus. What is needed for Japan, and internationally from Japan, is a leader with the vision to take on the tasks confronting the country, and the political skills to carry the Japanese public with them. Such a figure would stand the best chance of restoring the kind of stability Japan enjoyed under former PM Abe.


The Japanese government is set for a leadership change, and the world is watching keenly to see if the new leader will bring fresh perspective and meaning at a time when the world needs Japan to show resilience and continuity.


(Richa Jayal is a senior researcher on Japan affairs. She studied at Jawaharlal Nehru University and Osaka University. She has worked at Goldman Sachs and is the founder of Aureus Consultants.)


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