Japan’s new prime minister, conservative Yoshihide Suga, took office this Wednesday. It is the end of the Shinzo Abe era, at least formally. Suga, a little charismatic character, known among Japanese journalists as the “iron wall”, for his refusal to answer difficult questions, considered Abe’s right-hand man, promised to keep the course of his predecessor, setting up an Executive full of familiar faces . At 71, Suga inherited the leadership of the Liberal Democratic Party (PLD), which has a parliamentary majority and has ruled Japan for most of the past 65 years. He will have to make the transition between backstage, where he operated, and stardom, with the obligation to win elections, despite being a figure hitherto unknown to most Japanese.
A month ago, Suga’s rise to prime minister would be absolutely unpredictable. Abe’s timid response to the pandemic, hesitating to impose restrictions against the covid-19, left him with approval ratings of around 30%, but no one foresaw his departure. Until a crisis of ulcerative colitis, a chronic illness he had suffered from for a long time, forced him to walk away.
Suga’s choice was obviously the result of “an election in the smoking rooms inside the PLD,” said Jesper Koll, a Tokyo-based economist, speaking to the BBC. “The public had no say in their choice as Prime Minister of Japan,” he continued. “In the end, you are only good for your party if you can win public elections. Therefore, he is under pressure. It will have to show its value to the party ”.
Even among the Japanese, known for their work ethic, Suga is described as particularly disciplined. “He is a man who gets up at 5 am, does 100 sit-ups and reads all the papers,” describes Koll, who knows the new leader personally. However, Suga leaves with the disadvantage of being a compromise solution between the PLD barons, without the support of any particular faction. Son of farmers who produced strawberries in the icy north of Japan, the new prime minister is a rare case in his party, as he has no family political capital to cling to, unlike Abe, the son of a former foreign minister and grandson of a prime minister.
As such, Suga’s executive is a hodgepodge of the PLD’s seven main factions, including that of its main rival, the ultra-conservative Shigeru Ishiba, a former defense minister, who led the internal opposition to Abe. At a time when the Prime Minister is facing a pandemic and a brutal economic crisis, as well as a sharp drop in the birth rate and an increase in tensions with neighboring countries, such as China and South Korea, there is no doubt that Suga’s rivals will exploit each of their mistakes.
For now, Suga has rejected calls from the opposition, which demands the dissolution of Parliament and new elections, to legitimize the new incumbent. In any case, the new prime minister will have to prepare for the 2021 elections, always aware that the many factions in his party can take the carpet out of his way.