Yoshihide Suga emerging as favourite to become Japan's prime minister
A poker-faced loyalist who has been the public face of Shinzo Abe’s government for almost eight years is emerging as the favourite to replace him as Japan’s prime minister, after Abe’s surprising decision to resign over health concerns.
As chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga has faithfully communicated Abe’s message, on everything from economic policy to North Korean missile tests and the country’s faltering response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Local media reported on Tuesday that Suga was poised to confirm rumours that he intended to join the race to succeed Abe as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic party (LDP) – a position that would automatically make him prime minister.
As a member of a small group of decision-makers around Abe, Suga is being touted as the continuity candidate in a contest that so far includes the former defence minister – and Abe critic – Shigeru Ishiba, and Fumio Kishida, a former foreign minister.
While Ishiba is a popular choice among voters, he cuts a lonelier figure within the LDP, whose biggest parliamentary factions are reportedly poised to support Suga.
The selection process sparked controversy, however, after reports that Abe’s successor would be chosen by a narrow section of the party, with officials invoking an “urgency clause” to exclude rank-and-file members.
Voting will be confined to MPs and three representatives from each party chapter. The winner will be approved by the LDP-dominated lower house of parliament.
Senior LDP figures said it would take too long to organise a broader vote, given Abe’s unexpected resignation and ongoing battle with ulcerative colitis, a bowel condition that has twice brought a premature end to his premiership.
But those plans ran into opposition this week when more than 140 younger party MP and hundreds of local councillors demanded a full-scale vote.
Ishiba, who is supported by 34% of the public according to a recent poll, compared with 14% for Suga, said he opposed a limited vote. “I think that both for democracy and for the party, this is something that should not be,” he told the TV Asahi network.
Ishiba defeated Abe in the first round of an LDP presidential election in 2012 thanks to strong grassroots support, but lost in the second round when only MPs could vote. He lost heavily to Abe in a 2018 party leadership contest.
This week, Ishiba suggested the party had already anointed Suga as leader, even though voters had indicated they preferred a change in style after Abe, whose approval ratings had been sliding in the run-up to his resignation.
“People still want an LDP government, but after Mr Abe has resigned they’re asking: ‘Who’s got a different style?’” Ishiba told Reuters in an interview. “I’ve continuously challenged Abe and I have more support than those who haven’t. This is not based on performance, but on expectations.”
The 71-year-old Suga, who was Abe’s spokesman throughout his record-breaking 2,799 days in office, has gained a reputation as unflappable in the face of ministerial resignations and scandals.
Kishida, the LDP’s policy chief, is said to be Abe’s chosen successor, but has not polled well among voters. The finance minister and deputy prime minister, Taro Aso, has reportedly ruled himself out, while the foreign minister, Toshimitsu Motegi, and defence minister, Taro Kono, have yet to decide whether to run.
If, as expected, Suga wins the contest, expected to be held in the middle of the month, few observers expect a dramatic change of course after almost eight years of Abe.
“They are really going to try to get Suga to replace Abe and continue the Abe government without Abe,” said Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo.
Abe’s successor will inherit a challenging inbox that includes guiding the country through a resurgence of the coronavirus, a deepening recession, and an increasingly tight job market, with nearly two million people losing their jobs in July.
On foreign policy, he will be confronted by worsening ties with China and South Korea, and must decide how to restyle his predecessor’s diplomatic courtship with Donald Trump, who this week described Abe as “the greatest prime minister in the history of Japan”.
Tobias Harris, a Japan expert at Teneo consultancy and the author of a new book on Abe, said: “Given that the most important task facing the next prime minister will be controlling the Covid-19 pandemic and promoting economic recovery, it is little surprise that party leaders are opting for the candidate who will be the most likely to provide administrative continuity for what would have been the last year of Abe’s term.”