Yoshihide Suga became the country’s 99th Prime Minister on Wednesday, putting an end to the administration led by his predecessor Shinzo Abe — the longest in modern Japanese history — and marking the beginning of a new era shaped by a host of daunting political, economic and societal challenges.
Bathed in camera flashes and surrounded by fellow lawmakers giving him a thundering ovation, Suga — appearing as if he were stifling a smile — stood up from his seat and bowed five times after he secured enough votes in a ballot to nominate the prime minister in the Lower House. After he earned the same result in the Upper House, the new prime minister moved on immediately to form his first Cabinet.
The lineup that has emerged ahead of an official announcement later Wednesday underscores how Suga has embraced the label of being Abe’s heir for the sake of continuity, something he believes will be a key element in navigating the country through the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic downturn.
Overall, he has either opted to keep Abe’s appointees or turned to lawmakers with Cabinet experience in the most critical posts, aiming to reassure the ruling Liberal Democratic Party by prioritizing stability, the factional balance of power and smooth cooperation over novelty, diversity and freshness.
Of the 20 reported Cabinet members, only five of them are rookie ministers, including Abe’s younger brother Nobuo Kishi, the new defense minister. For key Cabinet posts, he chose to keep Taro Aso as finance minister, Toshimitsu Motegi as foreign minister and Yasutoshi Nishimura as minister in charge of economic revitalization and the government’s coronavirus response.
Yet in policy areas that Suga is particularly passionate about, such as digitalization and regulatory reforms, the new prime minister has carried out a shake-up with a view toward achieving his ambitions while still installing individuals with prior Cabinet experience. Outgoing Defense Minister Taro Kono was named minister in charge of administrative reforms.
For his old post of chief Cabinet secretary, Suga tapped outgoing health minister Katsunobu Kato, who he worked with between 2012 and 2015 when Kato was deputy chief Cabinet secretary.
Analysts have said Kato’s assignment to the role is a sign that Suga acknowledges his deftness as a coordinator and in delivering clear, to-the-point messages. The chief Cabinet secretary is a combination of the top government spokesperson and the equivalent of the chief of staff — the incumbent is often described as the prime minister’s right hand — and as such requires outstanding management skills.
The Cabinet selection, however, contrasts with his previous position calling for the party to abolish old-style faction-based politics, illustrating his dilemma that LDP factions are, from his perspective, a necessary evil he has to rely upon to solidify his power base both in the government and the party, since Suga himself does not belong to any of them.
To emphasize his chief qualification of continuity following the Abe administration, Suga picked five lawmakers from the Hiroyuki Hosoda faction that the former prime minister belongs to, in contrast to just three among LDP Diet members that don’t belong to a faction. The Hosoda group is among five LDP factions that officially backed Suga in the party leadership election.
He has also handpicked two lawmakers from the Fumio Kishida faction and one lawmaker from the Shigeru Ishiba faction, the leaders of which both ran against him. Those choices demonstrate Suga’s effort to assuage grievances over personnel affairs and agenda-setting authority from the former rivals.
Although the leadership election is over, Suga now has to confront the prospect of another, much larger vote: a Lower House election.
The LDP is anticipating a possible snap election as early as this autumn. There has been a persistent argument from inside the party that an early election would be better, since the newly relaunched Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition party with 150 Diet members, is not well-prepared for such a vote.
The LDP’s junior coalition partner, Komeito, however, remains cautious about dissolving the Diet, with the party worried about criticism that politicians would be prioritizing their own careers amid a pandemic and whether Soka Gakkai — a key voting force for the ruling coalition — is ready to be mobilized.
If he were to actually commit to a poll, Suga would be seeking a public mandate to establish himself as a long-term leader, not merely a caretaker prime minister chosen to serve the remainder of Abe’s LDP presidential tenure through September next year.
“(Dissolving the Lower House) is the prime minister’s exclusive prerogative, so we, the party, are in no position to make a request,” Toshihiro Nikai, LDP secretary-general, said on NHK after both chambers had completed voting. “The prime minister just assumed the role, so he can deliberate and make a decision. The party is preparing to deal with the dissolution whenever it happens. We’re fine if that happens tomorrow onward.”
Asked about the topic during a news conference Monday, Suga conceded that a snap election call is “a thorny issue.”
He would also have to fight in the election as Suga, the LDP leader. His close alignment with Abe has raised concerns about whether he will be able to branch out and introduce and sell his own ideas to the public.
He tried to do so while campaigning for the LDP’s leadership post, but his attempts have not necessarily gone smoothly. In the span of a week, he had to backpedal or correct his remarks on the consumption tax, the Self-Defense Forces and constitutional amendment.
On diplomacy, which is said to be one of his weak points, he has acknowledged that he would not be able to match Abe’s style, which saw him frequently make trips abroad to deepen personal relationships. But Suga has fought back against criticism that he lacks diplomatic experience by asserting he was involved in important decision-making on foreign affairs under the Abe administration and would carve out his own diplomatic style, but he has yet to elaborate at length on what that entails.
Abe entered the Prime Minister’s Office for his last day shortly before 9 a.m. Wednesday to hold one last Cabinet meeting. Appearing relaxed but slightly emotional, he thanked the public for its support and said his health condition is improving.
“After (the LDP) took over political power, I’ve worked to the best of my abilities every single day to revitalize the economy and carry out diplomacy to protect national interests,” Abe told reporters upon his entry to the building, where he had spent over 8 years across his first and second tenures.
“I’m indebted to all the people and I’d like to thank them from the bottom of my heart. … I’d like to ask you all for your strong support and understanding for the Suga Cabinet that will launch today.”