(Bloomberg) – The last time a longtime Japanese prime minister resigned, the country saw about six leaders in quick succession who only managed to last for about a year.
Shinzo Abe, who is expected to hand over power on Wednesday, then brought stability over an eight-year period that saw him become Japan’s longest-serving prime minister. The challenge now is for his designated successor, Yoshihide Suga, to continue this race.
“If anyone has a chance to break the ‘curse’, it’s Suga,” said Tobias Harris, analyst at consultancy Teneo Intelligence and author of a new bio on Abe. “His ability to control the bureaucracy, his relationship with the ruling coalition, and the public’s desire to avoid a revolving door return suggest he may be well positioned to win his own term next year and wield power.” for several years. . “
Suga, the 71-year-old son of a northern strawberry farmer, easily won a vote on Monday to lead the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and will be officially installed as prime minister in a parliamentary vote on Wednesday. He will initially serve in Abe’s final year in office, although some key party members have raised the possibility that he will soon call elections for a new term as opposition remains weak.
Despite the devastation of the economy from the coronavirus, Suga inherits a relatively stable Japan: Abe gradually improved unraveled relations with China, protected Japan’s military and economic interests after US President Donald Trump took office and allayed concerns in financial markets. Investors had little reaction to Suga’s victory on Monday, signaling that they saw no way out of the Abenomics’ way – a prospect that could push the yen up and pull stocks down.
Suga’s ease of victory is a good sign for his ability to deal with PLD factions. The party rallied around him almost as soon as Abe announced his intention to step down due to health concerns at the end of August. Instead of a deadly fight, the faction leaders opted for an electoral system that favored Suga and, within two days, had gathered enough support for him to win – even before the official campaign began.
Although Suga does not have his own official faction, he honed his skills as a pragmatic fixer behind the scenes during his tenure as Japan’s longest-serving chief secretary to the cabinet. His strong alliances with Toshihiro Nikai, an influential faction leader as well as the general secretary of the LDP, underpinned his victory on Monday.
Suga also has some advantages over Abe’s predecessors who quickly lost public support due to political stumbles or scandals. In the 50 years before Abe’s record, Japan had a new prime minister on average every two years.
First, Suga is fortunate to have an opposition that has largely failed to pose a threat in terms of voter support over the past eight years. A string of LDP prime ministers saw their political agendas stranded in the opposition-dominated upper house of parliament, culminating in the party’s historic electoral defeat to the Democratic Party of Japan in 2009.
A broad opposition bloc regrouped last week under the leadership of leader Yukio Edano, who has vowed to demand that parliament be open to debate on coronavirus policy. But a poll in the Mainichi newspaper showed that two-thirds of respondents did not have positive expectations of the main opposition bloc.
“I don’t think there is a high likelihood of a rapid renewal of prime ministers,” said Yu Uchiyama, a professor at the University of Tokyo who has written books on Japanese politics. “The reasons why this happened before was the weak position within the party, which allowed powerful factions to oust a prime minister, or a ‘crooked parliament’ which hampered management.”
Abe set to lead Japan until 2021 after big election victory
Still, obstacles that have stumbled other leaders lie in Suga’s path, including a campaign fundraising scandal with some of his associates and arrests for bribery related to his favorite plan to open resorts in Japan. . Suga was not directly involved in any of these issues.
And although the factions now support him, they have always been fickle. The LDP has at times seemed happier to mix up key positions between factions to maintain internal stability than to support a long-term leader – a trend that could reappear if Suga takes a few missteps.
The new leader will also take charge of an economy that experienced the sharpest contraction on record in the April-June quarter as the virus hit consumption. While the death toll from Covid-19 is by far the lowest of any Group of Seven countries, the cabinet’s handling of the pandemic has often come under criticism.
A wild card is Suga’s ability to time elections – a factor that has helped Abe stay in power for so long. In 2017, he and Abe cut off the candidacy of Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, calling for an early election before his new group was prepared.
Suga said he doesn’t think the country is in a position to call an election due to the virus – and polls indicate the public agrees. But that could change as a second wave of Covid-19 wears off: Tokyo successfully held a gubernatorial election in July.
With the LDP almost guaranteed to win every time the vote takes place in the coming year, Suga could then head to the 2021 leadership election with a huge advantage as the incumbent prime minister, ushering in the way to another term at the top – and keeping the revolving door firmly closed.
“I think Mr. Suga will work hard and aim for a long administration,” said LDP lawmaker Katsuei Hirasawa, a member of the main Nikai faction. “There are a lot of things he wants to do.”
© 2020 Bloomberg L.P.