Japan’s governing party chooses Shinzo Abe’s successor

Yoshihide Suga
Yoshihide Suga is widely expected to be selected

Japan’s governing party is set to vote Monday on a new leader to succeed Shinzo Abe, with the winner almost certain to be the next prime minister.

Last month Mr Abe announced his resignation due to health reasons.

The winner is widely expected to be 71-year-old Yoshihide Suga who serves as chief cabinet secretary in the current administration.

He is considered a close ally of Mr Abe and likely to continue his predecessor’s policies.

Once the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has chosen its new leader, there will be another vote on Wednesday in parliament, where he is almost certain to be made prime minister because of the LDP’s majority.

Taking over mid-term, that new prime minister is expected to finish the rest of the current period, until elections in September 2021.

Born the son of strawberry farmers, Mr Suga is a veteran politician.

Given his central role of chief cabinet secretary in the administration, he is expected to provide continuity heading an interim government until the 2021 election.

“Shinzo Abe and the other party bosses picked and joined the bandwagon for Mr Suga precisely because he was the best ‘continuity’ candidate, someone who they think could continue Abe government without Abe,” Koichi Nakano, dean and political science professor at Tokyo’s Sophia University, told the BBC.

While not considered the most energetic or passionate politician, Mr Suga has a reputation of being very efficient and practical.

One of his most prominent appearances recently was during the transition from past emperor Akihito to the current one Naruhito in 2019. It fell to Mr Suga to unveil the name of the new Reiwa era to the Japanese and global public.

Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga unveils the new era name "Reiwa"
He started being referred to as “Uncle Reiwa” soon after

Yet while he is the favourite to clinch the LDP leadership after Abe’s resignation, it is is much less clear whether he will lead the party in next year’s general election.

Observers suggest that by then, the party dynamic could shift to put a more vibrant man at the helm who can reach a wider general electorate.

There are two other contenders who have thrown their hats in the ring.

Kishida Fumio served as foreign minister under Shinzo Abe, but for the past three years was heading the party’s policy research council. Compared to Mr Suga, the 63-year old brings more international diplomatic experience to the table but lacks the endorsement by the outgoing prime minister.

The third contender is Shigeru Ishiba, a former LDP secretary-general and one time defence minister in an earlier Abe cabinet.

Fumio Kishida (left), Yoshihide Suga (centre), Shigeru Ishiba
Shigeru Ishiba (left), Yoshihide Suga and Fumio Kishida

From all three contenders, Mr Ishiba who is also 63, is the one who has tried to distance himself most from the outgoing prime minister and is hoping to represent a fresh start after Mr Abe.

Even though neither him nor Mr Fumio are considered to have a realistic chance against Mr Suga, their bids might put them in a good position for the 2021 general election once the current term is up.

The leadership transition comes at a difficult time for the country. Japan is still struggling with the coronavirus pandemic which has caused it’s biggest economic slump on record.

Mr Abe’s long-standing project of kickstarting the economy, dubbed Abenomics was, even before the pandemic hit, still a work in progress and the country has seen several years of stagnation, recession or only very slow growth.

There’s also unfinished business in the government’s plans to reform the post-war pacifist constitution. Mr Abe wanted to change a section in the constitution to formally recognize Japan’s military, which is currently called the Self Defence Force and is essentially barred from participating in any international military mandates.

For all those projects, a new administration under Mr Suga could provide stability and stay the course.

But during his time as chief cabinet secretary, he was “remarkably lacking in vision,” prof Nakano cautions.

“The only slogan he came up with is “Self help, mutual help, and public help” emphasizing neoliberal self-help and self-responsibility at the time of [a] pandemic that is exposing a whole lot of people to economic vulnerability.”

New general elections for the Diet, the lower house, are scheduled for September 2021 and by then, there will likely be another leadership contest within the LDP.

That contest will be more about who can win over the general electorate – rather than merely promise continuity, observers say.

Mr Abe said he did not want his illness to get in the way of decision making, and apologized to the Japanese people for failing to complete his term in office.

Shinzo Abe - May 2020

The 65-year-old has suffered for many years from ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease, but he said his condition had worsened recently.

Last year, he became Japan’s longest serving prime minister. His current period in office began in 2012.

He abruptly resigned from a previous term as prime minister in 2007 also because of his chronic condition.

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