October 2, 2020

Asia

JAPAN: Suga courts backlash with unprecedented intervention in advisory body

BY Tobias Harris

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( 5 mins)
  • Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga faces calls from both the ruling coalition and opposition lawmakers to explain his convention-defying rejection of six candidates nominated to an academic advisory council.
  • The government has refused to explain why it rejected the candidates, all of whom publicly criticized the Abe government for its national security policies.
  • This controversy will at least weaken Suga’s strong approval ratings and shift the public’s view of the new prime minister, but it could also lead to the resignation of senior officials.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is facing the first political challenge of his new government after it emerged that, in contravention of custom and potentially law, he had rejected the appointment of six scholars recommended for membership in the Science Council of Japan (SCJ), an advisory body attached to the Cabinet Office. All six had publicly opposed controversial Abe administration initiatives, including the reinterpretation of the constitution and new national security laws, the 2013 state secrecy law, and the 2017 conspiracy law.

The Suga administration has thus far offered no explanation for its precedent-breaking decision. At the very least, this incident could mean the end of Suga’s political honeymoon, as it could serve as a reminder to the public of the more unsavory aspects of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s tenure. At worst, it could lead to a resignation or resignations of senior members of the government to take responsibility for the decision, with Koichi Hagiuda, the minister of education, culture, sports, and science and technology who is a holdover from the Abe cabinet, or Shinji Inoue, minister of state for science and technology policy who formally oversees the SCJ, as the most likely to be removed.

Defying convention

The SCJ, a postwar partner of the National Academy of Sciences in the US, includes 210 elected members drawn from the sciences, social sciences, and the humanities, with 105 members elected every three years. Since 1983, members have been formally appointed by the prime minister based upon the recommendations of the SCJ. Based on past statements by government officials, the convention is that the prime minister would respect the independence of the council and take care not to politicize the selection process. Therefore, there is no precedent for rejecting the council’s recommendations, let alone doing so on what appears to be blatantly political grounds. This may not be a formal violation of the law, which only says that the prime minister makes appointments based on the council’s recommendation but does not say that the prime minister must accept the council’s recommendations. But a legal challenge is possible. The SCJ itself called an emergency meeting on Friday, 2 October, in which members warned that since the council is short six members, its current composition contravenes its law; its leadership is preparing a letter to the prime minister demanding an explanation.

Thus far, the prime minister and other senior officials have said little more than that the decision was lawful. The Cabinet Legislation Bureau (CLB), which formally advises the cabinet on the constitutionality of legislation and provides interpretations of existing statutes, reportedly rendered an opinion in 2018 that the prime minister is not obligated to appoint individuals recommended by the SCJ.

However, even if the administration is on firm legal footing, this affair is likely to become a political problem in the near term. While the opposition parties are united in condemning the decision as a threat to academic freedom and demanding an explanation from the government, even senior ruling coalition lawmakers have said that Suga should explain why he broke with precedent. For the public, this incident, while minor, will serve as a reminder of unpopular interventions by Abe in politically neutral institutions – including national broadcaster NHK and the CLB itself – as well as Abe’s failure to provide clear explanations for the influence-peddling scandals that dogged his final years in office. To the extent that Suga’s strong approval ratings depend on the perception that he can provide stability and policy continuity without the whiff of scandal and the Abe administration’s defensive attitude, this incident is highly likely to weaken the cabinet’s approval ratings.

Changing perceptions?

As Suga’s sudden emergence as Abe’s successor showed, the public’s impressions of the new prime minister are still fluid. The new government’s strong performance in initial opinion polls depended on the public’s favorable assessment of the prime minister’s personality. This incident – in which the prime minister appears to have vindictively punished political critics and refused to offer an explanation or an apology – could fundamentally alter the public’s perception of Suga, from “farmer’s son made good” to Abe’s loyal hatchet man.

For now, the Suga administration is taking a page from the Abe administration’s approach and is hoping that the public’s attention shifts without exacting more serious political consequences. However, with the SJC and the six rejected nominees taking the issue to the media and even ruling coalition lawmakers demanding an explanation, the issue is unlikely to fade quickly. The longer the government waits to address the concerns raised by its allies – to say nothing of its critics – the greater the likelihood it will have to reverse its decision and require a minister to assume responsibility and resign.

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