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Editorial: Simply succeeding Abe as Japan’s PM does not grant Suga legitimacy

Can Japan’s new administration sail on into the future fancy-free just by virtue of having succeeded the previous administration? It is the kind of start that has inspired a great deal of anxiety.


We speak of the new Cabinet of freshly minted Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, which was launched on Sept. 16. It was the first time someone other than Shinzo Abe has sat behind the prime minister’s desk in nearly eight years. However, Suga is in that seat now only because of Abe’s surprise resignation announcement, and the hastily mounted leadership election for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that followed. One might be tempted to call the new administration the emergency evacuation Cabinet.


It seems likely the same thing has occurred to Suga himself. To avoid his Cabinet looking overly provisional, he replaced over half of its ministers. Sliding Taro Kono from the defense portfolio to administrative reform looks like an attempt to give the whole shuffle a hint of unique plumage.


However, a closer look reveals a Cabinet and LDP leadership echelon built primarily to balance out the party’s various factions. The number of women included fell to two, another sign that the party and administration have failed to shed their traditional mustiness.


We are also surprised that Taro Aso will be continuing in his dual portfolio of deputy prime minister and finance minister. He ought to have resigned long ago, when it was discovered the Finance Ministry had dirtied itself by altering official documents related to the discounted sale of state land to school operator Moritomo Gakuen.


Including Toshihiro Nikai staying on as LDP secretary-general, the essential qualities, the bones of the administration and the party have not changed at all with the switch of prime minister.


It goes without saying that the first issue the Suga Cabinet will have to deal with is its coronavirus policy.


The Japanese government was overtaken by the coronavirus crisis, forcing it to play a relentless game of catch-up. We must remember that, as the longtime chief Cabinet secretary, Suga bears heavy responsibility for that. So now, what needs to be done first is a thorough examination of what went wrong.


This is not only true of pandemic policy. The “Abenomics” economic policy mix championed by the former prime minister as well as diplomatic engagement with Russia over the Northern Territories sovereignty issue were sputtering well before Shinzo Abe took ill. If Suga and his new Cabinet cannot humbly acknowledge that, then there will be no progress.


However, what we must demand most of all is reform on how the government conducts politics.


The LDP-led administration’s modus operandi thus far has been to turn a deaf ear to any dissenting opinion, and use the ruling coalition’s overwhelming majority to bulldoze its agenda through the Diet. This was the core political stratagem of the Abe-Suga partnership.


One of the ways the Abe administration deployed its brute-force power was, via the Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs, to burrow deeply and tenaciously into senior management appointments at central government ministries and agencies.


During the LDP leadership race, Suga stated that he would have any senior manager “moved” if they expressed any opposition to the government’s policy direction.


As a result of creating a culture of fear in the national bureaucracy, the civil service has shown an increasing undue deference to the prime minister’s office. And has this not brought on a style of politics damaging to the fairness and transparency of government administrative processes? There is a crying need to straighten out the warping of our institutions.


Suga has stated that, unlike civil servants, “we have been chosen in an election.” In these words we catch a glimpse of the attitude that, as long as one wins an election, then the Japanese people have entrusted all matters of policy to the elected, and that any and all contrary opinion is to be stamped out.


From the coronavirus crisis to the confrontation between the United States and China, the answers to the world’s current crop of problems will not be found easily. For that very reason, it seems essential to call on and absorb a more plentiful and diverse array of opinions and proposals than usual. The task now is to both listen to the voices of the people and make the most of the combined powers of the civil service.


Suga was also responsible for the issue of transferring U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to the Henoko district of Nago, all in Okinawa Prefecture. As the head of that file, Suga showed he intended to force through the base move regardless of deep and intense local opposition.


It is a leader’s responsibility to consciously moderate the application of overwhelming power, and instead seek the understanding of the people. However, both Abe and Suga appear to view power as something that should be harnessed to its utmost. What the failure to resolve the Futenma problem shows is that now is the time to change that approach. Again, just succeeding the previous administration is not enough.


With the launch of the Suga administration, both ruling and opposition party attention appears to be shifting to when the House of Representatives could be dissolved for a general election. Of course, it is only logical that a change of prime minister requires asking the people for their confidence.


The push for an early election is strong in the LDP. They are likely thinking that support for a new Cabinet is usually high right after its launch, making a snap election a potentially highly favorable strategy. That, however, is simple selfishness. It is also the same as saying that it would be better for the Suga Cabinet to do no work.


It is also essential to carefully examine the state of the coronavirus pandemic in Japan to see whether it is even possible to hold a national election. Furthermore, there should be no general election before sufficient debate has been allowed to play out in the Diet. To dissolve the lower house at the start of the autumn extraordinary session before a word of debate has been heard would be absolutely unacceptable.


The Abe administration treated the Diet with condescension, as though it was nothing but a subcontractor for the Cabinet. The Diet’s function, to monitor the government, has grown increasingly anemic, while it has become a matter of course to dissolve the lower chamber whenever it suits the administration’s interests, whether there is a point of principle requiring a new mandate at stake or not.


Meanwhile, part of the opposition camp has just recently gone through a reorganization. We hope this has made a chance for the Diet to get back on its feet.

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