On September 3 this year, the current Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced that he would not run for president of the ruling (still and for now) Liberal Democratic Party. It also means that he will not be able to retain his top government position in case of a (not predetermined) LDP victory in the upcoming regular parliamentary elections. Therefore, the period of Yoshihide Suga’s term of office will be limited to one year.
One involuntarily associates it with the “prime ministerial merry-go-round” of 2006-2012, when Washington allegedly had no time to remember the face of the next head of government of its key Asian ally. The above-mentioned period started with the resignation (September 2006) of Junichiro Koizumi.
Generally speaking, rapid succession of prime ministers is a quite common phenomenon in Japan’s recent history, which began in the second half of the 19th century. The last period of “flickering” among senior officials lasted until late 2012 when Shinzo Abe became prime minister for the second time. He took office for the first time after Junichiro Koizumi’s departure. There were five people in the interval before the “second accession” of Shinzo Abe to the specified post. Today, Shinzo Abe, who has served three consecutive terms as prime minister, is considered perhaps the most remarkable statesman of the entire mentioned 150-year period of the country’s history.
The announcement last August of the imminent resignation of Shinzo Abe as prime minister was quite expected for several reasons, the main one among them was conditioned by the electorate being tired of the flickering of one and the same (though talented) actor on the main political stage of the country, for eight years. He began to be blamed for relative trivialities, like some sort of “Cherry Blossom” party held supposedly at the government expense. By the summer of 2020, several similar allegations were superimposed on the dramatic deterioration of the COVID-19 epidemic in Japan.
The mentioned factor of the next general elections began to gain importance. The LDP leadership, which had already grown accustomed to the relative ease with which it won various electoral contests after Shinzo Abe became party president in the fall of 2012, sensed that this time Abe would drag the party to the bottom. The layman needed to be shown the party’s ability to “timely take into account errors and being able update.”
The symbol for this was to be the new composition of the government headed by Yoshihide Suga, a close friend of Shinzo Abe, in whose government he always held the post of chief of staff (Chief Cabinet Secretary). On September 16, 2020, the cabinet led by Yoshihide Suga received the approval of both houses of parliament by a separate vote. It also enjoyed very high initial support among the population (at 65-70%).
However, two or three months later, a trend emerged for a sharp decline in the rating of the new government and its head. The set of reasons for this tendency, discussed earlier in the NEO, was almost entirely tied to the same “covid” problems.
A very experienced organizer of implementing (someone else’s) decisions, Yoshihide Suga did not prove to be a decisive politician at the highest levels of government. In particular, according to Japanese experts, the imposition of restrictive measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 has clearly been delayed. Apparently, the new prime minister’s popularity would also have been bolstered by the final cancellation of the Olympic Games, which had already been postponed for a year. The majority of the population was in favor of such a decision.
The first discernible “wake-up call” to the LDP came in April of this year when the party was defeated in a rerun election for two seats in the upper house and one in the lower house of parliament. A bloc of opposition forces won in all three constituencies. It was then that there was talk about the possibility of losing the ruling party position in the forthcoming general elections as well. Recall that the LDP has led the country almost continuously since the mid-1950s.
Another severe blow to the Liberal Democratic Party’s reputation was the defeat of a candidate it supported in the August 22 mayoral election in Yokohama, the country’s second-most populous city. The outcome of this vote was mainly symbolic because Yoshihide Suga had once been elected to parliament from one of the city’s constituencies. Equally symbolic was the fact that the new mayor of Yokohama was a member of the opposition (a local university professor) who had never before been involved in any administrative or economic activity. And he defeated the former head (with the rank of minister) of the National Commission on Civil Security. A person quite experienced just in questions of different kinds of “management”.
In doing so, the townspeople made it clear to the ruling party that they agreed to see “anyone” in the Yokohama mayor’s chair but not its representative.
The “protest” nature of the voting in Japan’s second most important city was confirmed by the results of an opinion poll conducted a week later by the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper ( ). In particular, it turned out that the support rating of the incumbent Cabinet of Ministers fell to a record low of 26%. However, it is worth noting that the popularity of other parties (including the main opposition parties) is at an even lower level. Today, this does not allow us to make definite forecasts about the upcoming parliamentary elections, tentatively scheduled for late October-early November.
Commentators on the issue of the LDP’s defeat in the above-mentioned elections point to approximately the exact reasons for it, which in the fall of 2020 forced Shinzo Abe to resign, except for the absence of a factor of more or less serious incidents that would cast a shadow on the personal reputation of Yoshihide Suga.
Note that the negative outcome for the LDP in the last election (in Yokohama) was superimposed on another (it’s hard to say which one), “covid wave” among the population. The state of emergency now applies to 21 of the 47 prefectures (there were 7 in January), and it is being extended again until the end of September.
Nevertheless, as early as August 23, the day after the voting results appeared in Yokohama, Yoshihide Suga demonstrated his ability to “hold his ground,” that is, his willingness to run for re-election as LDP president. But ten days later, his own new statement was issued that he would not run for the post of the party leader to be elected at the appropriate party event scheduled for September 29.
As of early September, Taro Kono, Minister for Administrative Reforms (formerly head of the Ministries of Defense and Foreign Affairs), was occupying the leading position among several contenders. His current department’s responsibilities include the so-called “Northern Territories” problem and vaccination of the population against COVID-19.
As for the first “additional” burden among Taro Kono’s duties, no progress has been noted so far. His preferred starting position in the race for the LDP leadership is attributed to the relatively rapid pace of vaccination of the Japanese people.
Finally, we note that Yoshihide Suga concludes his political career by participating in a very noteworthy (in terms of possible consequences) second QUAD summit to be held in Washington on September 24. It seems important to point out the “face-to-face” format of the forthcoming meeting. It should be reminded that the first one, held online, took place only half a year earlier.
It means the prime minister of one of the world’s leading powers is abandoning the ship of global politics at a time when the sea is in a rather turbulent state.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific Region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.