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September 14, 2020


JAPAN: Suga wins leadership handily and seeks to form cabinet “for the people”

BY Tobias Harris

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( 6 mins)
  • Yoshihide Suga won an overwhelming victory in the race to succeed Shinzo Abe as leader of the Liberal Democratic Party and will form a government this week.
  • His cabinet picks will signal who leads among the LDP’s next generation of leaders, his relationship with the party and its factions, and his ability to form a stable government in his own right.

On Monday, 14 September, Yoshihide Suga was chosen as the next president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), clearing the way for his accession to the premiership on 16 September. As expected, Suga won overwhelmingly, gaining roughly 70% of the 535 votes cast by LDP lawmakers and the party’s 47 prefectural chapters. The manner of his victory – which was virtually certain within days after outgoing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s 28 August announcement of his intention to resign – shows that he inherits a united party, which will improve his chances of winning a full three-year term next year, all the more so if he is able to call a snap election and lead the LDP to a new majority.

Perhaps the most surprising result is the extent to which Shigeru Ishiba, the former defense minister and LDP secretary-general, was unable to translate his strong following among the party’s rank-and-file supporters into a second-place finish. Ishiba received 42 of the 141 prefectural chapter votes, but, more importantly, only 26 votes from LDP lawmakers, 19 of which were presumably the members of his own faction. Ishiba’s chances were hindered by the LDP’s decision to limit the number of prefectural votes and hold a quick vote – which prevented him from leveraging grassroots support in a bid to convince lawmakers to back him – but after years as the leading critic of Abe and Abenomics, it is unclear what his role will be in the post-Abe LDP. The outcome was not as bleak for second-place finisher Fumio Kishida, who received only ten votes from the prefectural chapters but 79 votes from lawmakers, building upon his faction’s 47 members. This performance will likely keep Kishida in the mix for senior government and LDP posts, and therefore a viable candidate in future leadership contests.

The most immediate issue for Suga is his lineup for the cabinet and the LDP’s executive. During the campaign and in his press conference Monday, Suga signaled that he would make significant changes to the cabinet; that he would not be beholden to the factions (notwithstanding his dependence on factional support to win); and that he would assemble a “cabinet that works for the people.” Suga’s most closely watched selection will be for chief cabinet secretary, the role that he has played since 2012. As chief cabinet secretary, Suga was a key decision-maker and adviser to the prime minister, chief spokesman, and chief administrator of the bureaucracy. It has also become an important stepping stone to the premiership for LDP leaders. A successful chief cabinet secretary needs a combination of experience, a close relationship with the prime minister, and heavyweight stature within the party. Speculation has focused on a short list that includes Defense Minister and former foreign minister Taro Kono; Minister of Economy, Trade, and Industry Hiroshi Kajiyama, the son of Suga’s mentor Seiroku Kajiyama; Minister of Health, Labor, and Welfare and former deputy chief cabinet secretary Katsunobu Kato; Minister of Education and former deputy chief cabinet secretary Koichi Hagiuda; and some long-shot candidates like rising star Minister of Environment Shinjiro Koizumi and Minister of Internal Affairs Sanae Takaichi. If Suga were to pick Kono, it would confirm that, as the Suga government begins, he is the leading contender to follow Suga, enjoying popular appeal, support within the party, and an increasingly lengthy resume of cabinet posts. Selecting Kajiyama, Kato, or Hagiuda, meanwhile, would raise their profiles after working in important positions throughout the Abe administration and bolster their prospects for future leadership bids.

This pool of candidates for the chief cabinet secretary post will likely be in the mix for other leadership posts. They will be joined by Kishida; current Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi; former economic revitalization minister Akira Amari, who, after resigning due to scandal in 2016, has reemerged as the LDP’s tax commission chairman and could be a strong contender for the finance ministry; and current economic revitalization minister Yasutoshi Nishimura. His choices for the foreign and defense portfolios – the weakest parts of Suga’s resume – could be particularly important given the importance of these issues in the coming months, and one option is that Motegi and Kono could stay in their posts in the new cabinet. Despite speculation that Suga could appoint former Osaka governor and mayor Toru Hashimoto as Minister of Internal Affairs – intriguing given an upcoming referendum in Osaka that could finally mean the realization of Hashimoto’s vision of a unified metropolitan government for Osaka – both Suga and Hashimoto categorically denied the possibility. After Abe repeatedly faced criticism for failing to appoint many women to cabinet posts, Suga could face pressure to name a strong contingent of female ministers, which could include Takaichi; former Minister of Economy, Trade, and Industry Yuko Obuchi, who resigned due to scandal weeks after her appointment in 2014; former Defense Minister and Abe protégé Tomomi Inada, who resigned amidst accusations that her ministry mishandled documents; and former Minister of Internal Affairs and LDP executive council chief Seiko Noda. While it seems unlikely that Suga would retain Taro Aso as finance minister and deputy prime minister – particularly if he were to appoint Kono, who belongs to Aso’s faction, as chief cabinet secretary – it is unclear what role Aso will play. Meanwhile, LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, who drew close to Suga after assuming the LDP’s number-two position in 2016 and was instrumental in Suga’s victory, has already been reappointed, as has parliamentary affairs chief Hiroshi Moriyama.

Despite recent remarks from Kono and Aso that a snap election could be called soon after Suga forms his government, on Monday, Suga claimed that he was not considering doing so, suggesting instead that his focus in the immediate term will be combating Covid-19, boosting economic recovery (which could include a third supplemental budget), and introducing some new administrative reforms, including the creation of a digital affairs agency, which would address issues that Suga has long been focused on and would also address Japan’s failures to embrace “e-government” that have been revealed during the pandemic.

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