Imai [Special Advisor to the Prime Minister Takaya Imai] and Kitamura [National Security Secretariat Secretary-General Shigeru Kitamura] have become entangled in their own schemes. After a quick reversal of fortunes amid the spread of COVID-19, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga is now moving forward as the de facto “acting prime minister.”
It is now clear to all that Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga is already in full control of the government’s measures against COVID-19. The new policy that the “de facto Suga administration” will carry out is clear: To restart the economy without the risk of spreading COVID-19; never declare a state of emergency; even if the number of infections increases, leave prevention to individuals and don’t stop the movement of people, goods and capital; regardless of whether the public support the policy or not, the administration will carry it out. The government’s “Go To Travel” campaign symbolizes this policy. The largest aim of the campaign was to impress the public with the new policy by implementing it without regard for its unpopularity or the confusion it might cause. Since July, Suga, with unprecedented media exposure, has placed this policy front and center. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, on the other hand, has retired to the role of a lackluster cabinet spokesperson, unable to provide any direction and only following the “Suga-led corona measures.” In fact, he can’t even hold a press conference and is now nothing more than a papier-mâché decoration.
How did the unusual posture where the roles of prime minister and chief cabinet secretary are swapped start? Even if the nationwide school closure and the declaration of a state of emergency were effective only in deterring infection, the price of choking off socio-economic activity was too steep, and the two measures failed as a comprehensive “response to COVID-19.” Abe’s one close aide, Imai, executive secretary to the prime minister and also special advisor to the prime minister, haphazardly waved the start flag for the campaign. It cannot be denied that it was a policy misstep, but there was no need for Abe to retreat so drastically. Whispers he is in poor health were an inevitable consequence. The inability to take a summer vacation at his villa at Lake Kawaguchiko, Yamanashi Prefecture, may be not only out of concern for public opinion, but also out of the need, from a crisis management perspective, to take into account the availability of medical treatment in case of a sudden change in his health. Although the government denies it, and with no information available, there is finally speculation that Prime Minister Abe may have contracted COVID-19. In any case, there is no doubt that the premier is not in the best of spirits or physical condition.
Bizarre interview with monthly magazine “Hanada”
The next question that arises is how long will this unnatural posture last? Once the government shifts to leadership under a “de facto acting Prime Minister Suga,” it would be hard to return to how things were before. The speculation is not only based on how the government promotes the “Go To Travel” campaign or how frequently Suga appears in the media. What surprised the political world and government was the simultaneous appearance of separate interviews with Abe and Suga in the July 21 issue of the conservative monthly magazine Hanada. While the prime minister’s remarks were backward-looking and focused entirely on making excuses for measures in response to COVID-19 so far, Suga exclusively focused on the future and what needs to be done. Imagine a president and a senior managing director of a large company, whose management has deteriorated substantially due to the COVID-19 crisis and whose prospects for the future are bleak, appearing separately in the same issue of the same magazine, with the president looking darkly backward and the senior managing director confidently arguing for an aggressive breakthrough. It is easy to imagine how bizarre such a scenario would seem. Employees, shareholders, and the industry would certainly take it as a sign that the president is stepping down and passing the torch to the senior managing director.
“Suga is no doubt one of the strongest post-Abe candidates,” said Abe during the interview. “But the problem with a ‘Prime Minister’ Suga is that he wouldn’t have a Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga.” Last year, Suga surged to the top of the “post-Abe” list on the strength of the buoyant public mood over the advent of the Reiwa era, which was publicly announced by him. It was around that time that Abe first explicitly referred to Suga as a post-Abe candidate. Late last year, the prime minister listed in the following order the names of post-Abe candidates on a TV program: Liberal Democratic Party Policy Research Council Chairperson Fumio Kishida; Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi; Suga; and Minister of Health, Welfare and Labour Katsunobu Kato. In this way, the premier included Suga as only one among several candidates. The prime minister apparently made an exceptional reference to Suga during the interview with the monthly magazine.
Special Advisor Imai controls Abe’s public relations. He gives detailed instructions on the choice of medium and timing, as well as the manner and message of Abe’s appearance. The interview with Hanada was published with Abe’s consent and with the approval of Imai, who “has been plotting to oust Suga from the post-Abe race,” according to a senior LDP official. Instead of the monthly magazine Bungeishunju, the regular outlet for interviews with Abe, if Hanada, whose readers are “bedrock supporters of the Abe administration,” was purposefully chosen to mentally prepare “enthusiastic supporters” for the smooth transfer of power to Suga, it makes sense.
But Suga, whose approval rating is between 3% and 4% in polls for the “post-Abe race,” has almost no chance of being elected as the next LDP president in the party’s regular presidential election, in which both lawmakers and rank-and-file party members will vote. If there is a smooth power transfer from Abe to Suga, it would be by an extraordinary presidential selection process following the sudden resignation of Abe. Specifically, instead of convening a party convention, a Joint Plenary Meeting of Party [LDP] Members of Both Houses of the Diet would be held where Suga would be approved by acclamation. It is unclear whether the reason for Abe’s resignation would be an explosive growth of COVID-19, the cancellation of the Tokyo Olympics, his health condition, or something else. It is also unclear when, for what reason, and in what situation that would happen or whether a scenario has already been developed. But the current political situation is proceeding in a bizarre manner that cannot be understood without assuming that such development is anticipated.
The key to turning the tide is a “cunning alliance” [between Suga and LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai]
Newspapers and TV broadcasters, unfamiliar with power dynamics and behind-the-scenes political machinations within the Prime Minister’s Office, have been reporting there is “distance between Abe and Suga,” as if they knew what they were talking about, but this is not the case. Suga has been humble and loyal to Abe with an astonishing degree of patience since he became chief cabinet secretary seven and a half years ago. It is Special Advisor Imai and Secretary General Kitamura who dislike Suga and attempted to embarrass him by releasing a series of scandalous information [on Suga’s aids] to the weekly magazine “Shukan Bunshun.” The prime minister turned a blind eye to their maneuver, as such plots have been the norm since Abe returned to power seven and a half years ago, not something that started last year. In this way, Abe’s close aides stay in power beyond the moral standards of the bureaucracy. In order to protect themselves after the resignation of Abe in the future, they even planned the smooth transfer of power from Abe to Kishida and Abe’s fourth term as the next best measure. Since Suga is against a smooth transfer of power to Kishida, they tried to eliminate Suga, but Suga endured this insidious encirclement. With the current COVID-19 situation, Suga quickly turned the tide. Thus Imai has gotten caught in his own scheme and has no choice but to accept the possibility of the transfer of power from the prime minister to Suga, which Abe has also been prepared to accept. As for the self-serving Kitamura, who is intent on protecting himself, he has slipped into a situation in which he could survive by hitching his fortunes to the smooth transfer of power to Suga so that he can retain his post as secretary general of the National Security Secretariat.
The key to turning the tide was Suga’s cunning alliance with LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai. The two share the political goal of opposing the transfer of power to Kishida and have connections with the ruling junior coalition Komeito Party and Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party) as a means to shift political landscape.
The fatal weakness of Imai and Kitamura is their arrogance, which results from their overconfidence in the strong and unchallenged Prime Minister’s Office and their plan to bring Kishida to power while underestimating the power of political parties. The confusion caused by the major shift in the subsidy policy from “300,000 yen for needy households” to “100,000 yen for all citizens” exposed the ineffectiveness of Kishida, who was put in charge of coordinating the policy by Imai and others. The reason for the failure in coordination is that both Imai and Kishida had no way to control the Komeito. Only Nikai and Suga have that power in the LDP right now and they both tacitly approved the Komeito’s demand for the adoption of the 100,000-yen plan. It was local governors who pushed the government to declare a state of emergency. Only Nikai has influence over Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike and only Suga holds sway over Osaka Governor Hirofumi Yoshimura (vice president of Nippon Ishin), but both sat on the sidelines.
As expected, the politically tone-deaf media and pundits have played up “Suga vs. Koike” over “Go To Travel” campaign, but as mentioned above, Suga is consciously “stepping on both the accelerator [Go To Travel campaign] and brake [measures against COVID-19]” at the same time; he is not in the least fazed by Governor Koike’s sarcastic remarks. During the Tokyo gubernatorial election, Suga refrained from attacking Koike as Nikai was supporting her, but once the election was over, Suga unleashed a barrage of attacks on Governor Koike, knowing exactly what he was doing. In contrast, Koike, as usual, is all talk and no action, and is no match for Suga. What should be noted is that Suga now displays his bullish confidence and aggression, which he had been hiding. The “Suga vs. Koike” skirmish is nothing more than a laughable farce.
Whichever way the matter ends, Nikai will place his bets on the winning horse.
The political situation over COVID-19 has reminded us of a political principle: what underpins the running of the administration is after all personal connections and power relationships with political parties built up through cooperation in policy-making and elections, borrowing and lending; and the presence or absence of such relationships can make the difference between success and failure in a crisis situation. The “Kantei bureaucrats” have policy-making capability, but no political power in the true sense. On the contrary, the Nikai-Suga duo demonstrated what real political power is, and that it is impossible to govern in a crisis without it, achieving a brilliant seizure of power. They even killed Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso’s attempt to dissolve the House of Representatives by having the Komeito oppose it. The political situation over COVID-19 and post-Abe politics are inseparable and the two sides of the same coin. This is how the current situation has been created. It is not surprising that Nikai now sees Suga as the most likely post-Abe candidate. In fact, that seems to be Nikai’s true intention.
The measures against the first wave of COVID-19 led by Imai and other bureaucrats failed as a means of governing, if not measures to prevent infection. This led to a shift to a Suga-led strategy with a greater focus on governing than preventing infection. At the same time, Nikai’s metamorphosis into the center of the “post-Abe” political scene was truly remarkable. Up until then, Nikai played the role of an old man who had been appalled by LDP personnel, who in turn wondered whether “Nikai was asleep or had grown senile,” but as soon as post-Abe candidates began their “Nikai visits” one after the other, he treated them at his chose with sweet words. At a dinner with Kishida, who plotted to “take the party’s secretary-general post by ousting Nikai in the last year’s election,” Nikai said, “I look forward to seeing you as the next prime minister with a bright future.” Former LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba invited Nikai to speak at a meeting of his own faction, Nikai said: “He [Ishiba] is one of our party’s most experienced politicians. I have high expectations for him and hope that he will go on to achieve even higher things in the future.” As for Prime Minister Abe, Nikai used to say, “Abe will be followed by Abe and a fourth term is possible.” Now Nikai has toned down that assertion, saying “It’s up to him. If he says he wants to do it [a fourth term], he can try, and if he doesn’t, I should refrain from commenting on it.” On the other hand, Nikai spoke highly of Suga, saying: “Suga is a great politician. With Suga’s support, we can run the administration. He has a sense of balance, is consistent in his policies, and has the makings of a future leader.” While Nikai casts his net in all directions so that he can ride a winning horse no matter what happens, the weight of his words suggests that he believes that Suga is the most likely candidate.
A plot by Nikai and Suga to create a “cross-factional Diet members caucus”
Nikai and Suga will launch a new cross-factional “Diet members caucus for regional revitalization and promotion of future cities” in August. The invitation distributed to the party lists 65 LDP members including Nikai and Suga, as well as 34 lawmakers from the Nikai faction. It’s a full-fledged lineup including the following LDP heavyweights: LDP Diet Affairs Committee Chairperson Hiroshi Moriyama and Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Hiroshi Kajiyama, who are close to Suga; former LDP Secretary-General Hiroyuki Hosoda and Secretary-General for the LDP in the House of Councillors Hiroshige Seko from the Hosoda faction; Chairperson, General Assembly of Party Members of the House of Councillors Masakazu Sekiguchi from the Takeshita faction; and General Council Chairman Shunichi Suzuki from the Aso faction. In May, the Diet enacted a bill revising the national strategic special zone law to create future cities (smart cities) by using AI and big data to promote self-driving and cashless payment. The new Diet members caucus is aimed at combining the new super city law with regional revitalization to make it the center of new growth strategy. This tries to kill several birds with one stone by resolving such issues as overcrowded urban areas, which has emerged once again in the wake of COVID-19, and measures against natural disasters. Needless to say, this will quickly change to a framework for launching the “Suga administration” by transforming the newly formed caucus into a Suga-supporting group. Everything is fully prepared and they are obviously serious.
Already in June, similar parliamentary groups were formed within the LDP with the next presidential election looming ahead. The new strategic headquarters for the creation of a new world order (headed by Kishida and chaired by LDP Research Commission on the Tax System Chairperson Akira Amari; about 100 lawmakers attended the first meeting) was formed in the party’s Policy Research Council. Also formed was the federation of Diet members for a new national vision (chaired by the party’s Election Strategy Committee Chairperson Hakubun Shimomura with Executive Acting Secretary-General Tomomi Inada as the federation’s secretary-general; 136 lawmakers attended the inaugural meeting). The federation was initiated mainly by the Hosoda faction members who are against the smooth power transfer from Abe to Kishida. Shigeru Ishiba, who is the most popular post-Abe candidate in polls, continues to lag behind in consolidating support within the party. If the new caucus led by Nikai and Suga enters the intra-party competition, it will signify the kick-off of a “post-Abe” race. Public opinion is unreliable. A look at the distribution of power within the party, which is based on the principle of competence and ability, brings home the fact that Suga is viewed as the most likely successor to Abe.
Nevertheless, the view that Suga is the most likely post-Abe candidate raises questions. The choice of the “post-Abe” cabinet will be based on the assessment of the nearly eight-year-old Abe administration. How will Suga, who has consistently played a central role in the administration as the “behind-the-scenes prime minister,” sum up good points and bad points of the administration? He can’t criticize the Abe administration. To what extent will the method of advocating a constructive and forward-looking succession, not merely one person taking over from another, be understood and supported? At the very least, it is hard to imagine that the next House of Representatives election will be dominated by expectations for the “Suga” administration. Will Suga be the leading figure for the government and Nikai for the LDP in the election? That’s why senior officials of the ruling parties, who have been trying to make Suga the most likely post-Abe candidate, expected that Suga will first resign suddenly to “leave Abe” and reemerge. Due to the COVID-19 situation, Suga has unexpectedly become the “acting prime minister” and started moving forward with the banner of “rebuilding Abe’s failed measures against COVID-19.” Under the circumstances, the only way for Suga to take office is through the smooth transfer of power from Abe to him. When and how will such a power transfer take place? Suga is the most likely post-Abe candidate but there remains uncertainty depending on how things play out.