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Opinion

Suga the wrong choice to remedy Abe's failures

Chief cabinet secretary lacks the personal qualities to provide bold leadership

| Japan
As chief government spokesman, Suga took the lead in rebuffing media criticism.   © Reuters

Associate professor James D.J. Brown is academic program coordinator for international affairs at Temple University's Japan Campus.

Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party looks set to opt for continuity on Monday with Yoshihide Suga, 71, likely to win a party room ballot to succeed Shinzo Abe as Japan's next prime minister.

LDP policy chief Fumio Kishida, 63, and former defense minister Shigeru Ishiba, 63, have also declared their candidacies. However, having secured the support of five of the LDP's seven factions, Suga has already amassed a seemingly unassailable lead.

Unfortunately, Suga is the wrong choice. Facing such a daunting set of challenges, what Japan needs most is change, not more of the same.

The argument in favor of Suga is simple. As chief cabinet secretary since December 2012, Suga was a key architect of Abe's premiership, the longest in Japanese history. His primary contribution was to tame the bureaucracy to Abe's will. As chief government spokesman, he also took the lead in rebuffing media criticism.

Suga's supporters point to his ability to provide continuity at a time when the country is still grappling with the COVID-19 crisis. He is presented as a safe pair of hands who can lead the country at least until the official expiry of Abe's term as party president in September 2021. Yet given the magnitude of the challenges facing Japan, what is required is real change in leadership, not a year of stasis.

The most acute problem is the pandemic, and Japan's government, in which Suga has had a central role as chief cabinet secretary, has botched its response. This included the abrupt order to close schools nationwide in February, and a much-derided campaign to distribute unneeded, substandard masks to every household at a cost of 46.6 billion yen ($435 million).

A Kyodo survey in May found that 57% of Japanese were dissatisfied with the government's COVID crisis management. Japan has other serious underlying problems. Abenomics -- the outgoing prime minister's economic stimulus package -- succeeded as a marketing slogan but failed to revive the economy, which shrank at an annualized rate of 7.1% in the last quarter of 2019 before the pandemic struck.

The Abe administration was also unable to increase Japan's labor productivity, which remains the lowest in the Group of Seven and just 60% that of the United States. Japan's shrinking, aging population will only compound those economic woes. Internationally, the Abe government's attempts to court President Xi Jinping did nothing to curb Chinese expansionism. Indeed, in August 2020, China set an ignominious record of 111 straight days on which its vessels entered the contested waters surrounding the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands.

The Abe government's attempts to court President Xi Jinping did nothing to curb Chinese expansionism.   © Kremlin/Reuters

Abe's team also made unreciprocated concessions in territorial negotiations with Russia, while nuclear-armed North Korea rejected Abe's unconditional offer of direct talks. Moreover, on Abe's watch, relations with South Korea sank to icy depths. As such, even before Abe's health forced his resignation, his administration was ailing. A Jiji opinion poll on August 14 showed that just 32.7% of respondents approved of the cabinet's performance.

A dynamic new leader might be able to turn around the government's fortunes. Unfortunately, Suga is not such a figure. For a start, a recent Kyodo poll showed that only 14.3% of the public would like to see him as prime minister. His mandate will also be weakened by the party's decision to hold a scaled-down leadership election, which will exclude the LDP's one-million ordinary members. The purported reason for limiting the voting to LDP parliamentarians and delegates from local chapters is to avoid disruption during the pandemic. Many suspect that the real reason is to restrict the prospects of former defense minister Shigeru Ishiba, who is much more popular with the public.

Suga also lacks the personal qualities to provide bold leadership. Despite his years as the government's chief spokesman, he is a poor communicator. His twice-daily press briefings are characterized by his sullen demeanor and frequent refusal to answer questions. He also lacks international experience and does not speak fluent English.

The Abe administration's many scandals have also stained Suga's image. He had close ties to Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Isshu Sugawara, and Justice Minister Katsuyuki Kawai, both of whom were forced to resign due to corruption allegations. Suga has also been accused of fostering a pernicious culture within the bureaucracy in which officials are unprecedentedly pressured for the rapid implementation of the prime minister's schemes, sometimes by distorting the rules.

This malign bureaucratic culture was a core aspect of the Moritomo Gakuen and Kakegakuen scandals. The first of these saw friends of the prime minister's wife granted permission to purchase government land at just 14% of its estimated value. The second involved a close friend of Abe being given approval to open a new veterinary school, even though no such permission had been granted in the previous 52 years.

Lastly, a man who maintains a 7-day-a-week work schedule, and boasts of having never once slept overnight at his home since assuming the post of chief cabinet secretary, is not the person to reform Japan's toxic culture of overwork. His status as an elderly man also speaks to the LDP's failure to fulfill its promise to create "a society where women can shine."

With the party's factions having already made their decision, it appears too late for another candidate to take the top job. However, both the LDP and Japan may come to regret that, at a time when fresh thinking is sorely needed, the LDP appears to have locked itself into a choice of prime minister who is distant from the public, lacks international contacts, and was complicit in many of the worst failings of the Abe administration.

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