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7 September 2021, Gateway House

Why Japan’s Suga slid

Suga Yoshihide was Japan’s stop gap Prime Minister to cover the sudden exit of the long-serving Abe Shinzo. He didn’t rock the boat, carried out the Abe agendas including on the Indo-Pacific, the US, China, India. He managed COVID, and the difficult Olympics. Yet he lost his popularity. Blame it on political fault lines.

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Ganesh Chaturthi will come this year, but it seems that the blessings of the deity on Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide have run out. A year ago, he became the 99th Prime Minister of Japan, emerging out of the shadows of Prime Minister Abe’s long reign. He was backed by the Ganesha group of unaffiliated independent lawmakers[1] who propelled him to the leadership of the Liberal Democrat Party (LDP) which carries with it the Prime Ministership of Japan.

A few days short of a year in office Suga suddenly announced his decision not to compete in the LDP Presidential race, which is due on 29 September. With that he will not remain the Prime Minister. In 2017, LDP rules were amended to allow three, three-year terms to its President to avoid short term Prime Minsisters.[2] Suga is not availing that opportunity.

Suga was a stop gap Prime Minister to cover the sudden exit of the long serving Abe Shinzo. He did not rock the boat, carried out the Abe policies, including on the Indo-Pacific, the U.S., China, India et al. He had responsibility to deal with the COVID crisis, which admittedly was not successful. He shouldered the reluctant responsibility of holding the Tokyo Olympic Games despite immense public dissatisfaction.[3]

When Suga became Prime Minister, his lack of a political base was to be compensated by his ability for backroom manoeuvres. He had successfully mastered these in the Abe period, holding several party and government positions. However, his lack of a faction to back him meant he was beholden to other factions. In 2020, five factions backed him, and he won the election rather easily. Now, he seems to be left with one faction which is weakening and his Ganesha group has splintered as its members are looking at how they will win the next election.

What are the reasons behind Suga’s decision to quit? Five primary reasons are offered.

First, a poor response to fighting COVID, providing medical assistance and vaccinating the population. These are considered inadequate and lack the spirit and efficiency which Japanese governance is known for. Part of this is due to the inability of Japan to transition to a digital age, particularly overcoming archaic government laws, including those requiring physical hankos or name stamps/seals that the Japanese use to ID themselves for everything from travel to property purchases.[4]

Secondly, the Tokyo Olympics were held in an obligatory way because the International Olympic Committee held all the cards. Japan would have suffered economically had they cancelled the Games. Public opinion in Japan remained consistently against the Games.

However, Suga’s exit is not only because people could not see the Olympic Games in their own country or get vaccinated in adequate numbers.

Suga seems to have tripped on political fault lines. In order to bolster his political strength, he tried to shuffle the leadership of the party in advance of the party election on 29 September. The shadow kingmaker behind him, Nikai Toshihiro, the Secretary General of the LDP, at 82, himself wanted to move out of the central position. Suga was unable to build a consensus around this reshuffle, as other faction leaders saw it as a power play

Fourthly, Suga toyed with the idea of dissolving Parliament to have an earlier election. Had he succeeded in this, then the party election would be postponed, till after general elections. If LDP won, as is likely, Suga would be credited with the win and his position within the party would become unassailable.

His competitors did not want to allow these. Both within the party and within the government, Suga could not carry his weight. When he assumed office, Suga had a positive public rating of nearly 74%. But a year later, he had reached abysmal figures of 28% in an Asahi poll in August[5].

There is a hiatus between public approval and political machinations. Often the latter, at critical moments, are more important. Suga had a massive public approval rating and the aura of being the successor to Abe. He could have held an election early and marshalled his political resources. He left it for too late – when his popularity ebbed.

Fifthly, the Mayoral election in Yokohama pulled Suga down in his own backyard. Okonogi Hachiro, the Suga-picked LDP candidate, fell victim to popular unhappiness, leading to the victory of opposition candidate Yamanaka Takeharu.[6] This spooked the LDP rank and file. They realised that Suga had no magic charm for them to win the next elections. The lack of his political clout, and plunging public approval for the government, ensured that the stop-gap arrangement would conclude.

The Suga resignation has been a public demand since April. A Yomiuri Shinbun poll showed that 47% preferred Suga to resign by the date of the LDP election in September.[7] This was corroborated by 70% respondents in a Nikkei poll.

Oddly, in that poll in late August, 20% of LDP supporters still backed Suga. Among all respondents, he still secured 11% support to be Prime Minister.[8] The maximum support, 16%, was for Kono Taro, Japan’s minister for administrative reform and also in charge of vaccinations, and pandemic handling. These are the very issues Suga is criticised for, but in a twist of Japanese irony, the minister directly responsible for both issues now leads the succession line to become the 100th Prime Minister of Japan.

Gurjit Singh is Former Ambassador of India to ASEAN, Current Chair of the CII Task Force on Asia-Africa Growth Corridor and Professor at the IIT, Indore.

This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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References:

[1] Gurjit Singh, Yoshihide Suga: blessed by Ganesha, Gateway House, 5 October 2020, https://www.gatewayhouse.in/suga-yoshihide-ganesha/

[2] Tomohoro Osaki, Rule change could see Abe become nation’s longest-serving leader, Japan Times, 5 March 2017,https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2017/03/05/national/politics-diplomacy/rule-change-see-abe-become-japans-longest-serving-leader/

[3] Gurjit Singh, Obligatory Olympics: Tokyo 2021, Gateway House, 8 June 2021, https://www.gatewayhouse.in/obligatory-olympics-tokyo-2021/

[4] Gurjit Singh, Will the Japanese Hanko be stamped out, Madras Courier, 2 November 2020. https://madrascourier.com/opinion/will-the-japanese-hanko-be-stamped-out/

[5] Survey: Olympic support up, but Cabinet approval rate drops to 28%, Asahi Shinbun, 9 August 2021, https://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/14414274

[6] Opposition wins Yokohama mayor election in blow to Japan PM Suga, Kyodo News, 23 August 2021,https://english.kyodonews.net/news/2021/08/07b5c6040edf-voting-starts-in-yokohama-mayor-election-result-key-to-sugas-fate.html

[7] Elizabeth Shim, Poll shows majority of Japanese want prime minister to resign soon, UPI, 5 April 2021,https://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2021/04/05/Japan-Yoshihide-Suga-resign-poll/1181617647372/

[8] Japan public favors Kono and Ishiba in LDP race: poll, Nikkei Asia, 30 August 2021, https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/Inside-Japanese-politics/Japan-public-favors-Kono-and-Ishiba-in-LDP-race-poll

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