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Commentary: How will Japan’s new prime minister transition from lieutenant to leader?


PYEONGTAEK, SOUTH KOREA – Yoshihide Suga, who has spent nearly eight years of his life as chief Cabinet secretary supporting the prime minister, has now officially become the leader of Japan.


The world will be wondering: How will Suga handle the transition from lieutenant to leader?


In some respects, the chief Cabinet secretary seems like a logical choice to succeed the prime minister. After all, the chief Cabinet secretary serves as the administration’s primary inter-agency coordinator, responsible for overseeing the implementation of all major policy decisions.


For the chief Cabinet secretary, the ability to manage bureaucratic and ruling coalition interests is a requisite skill. The position also comes with the dual responsibility of serving as the administration’s spokesperson — fielding two press conferences daily to address everything from policy decisions to social issues to scandals.


But there are two things that the chief Cabinet secretary does not do routinely.


The first is making decisions. Yes, Suga has forwarded some policy ideas during his short campaign this past week, but he has championed Shinzo Abe’s policies for nearly a decade and has always had the higher level decision authority to rely upon.


How will he fare when there is no higher decision-maker? Will he merely fall on his predecessor’s old habits or will he seek to carve out his own agenda? The only one who knows that answer is Suga himself, but the party and public will be quick to judge.


The chief Cabinet secretary is also not typically a respondent in parliamentary sessions. The prime minister and Cabinet ministers are the ones who field most of the questions that come up in parliamentary meetings, and responding to interpellations require a far different skill set from that needed to handle press access.


It will be more difficult for Suga to evade answering tough questions in the legislature, and the policy implications for his responses are much further reaching.


Beyond the transition from chief Cabinet secretary to prime minister, it is necessary to look at Suga from the perspective of sources of power to gain insight on how he may fare.


Veteran political scholar Tomohito Shinoda outlines six sources of power for a Japanese prime minister: their power base within the party, ties with the bureaucracy, ties with opposition parties, personal popularity and public relations, support from the business community, and international reputation (especially with Japan’s chief ally, the United States).


Power base within the party

Most will look at Suga’s performance in the LDP poll and think that he has a solid base of power within the party.


Problem is, that is not necessarily true. Suga only won 54 percent of the nonfactional votes, meaning that local LDP chapters and independents were still largely split on the idea of Suga as the party chief.


That will have implications come next September when the LDP’s local chapters suddenly get an equal share of votes as sitting parliamentary members. Suga will have to make himself irreplaceable for local LDP politicians, so don’t be surprised to see a big emphasis from the Suga administration on regional revitalization and pork-barrel projects.


Compounding Suga’s challenges is that the 268 factional votes that he received came with a price tag.


Suga will have to pay back his allies with Cabinet and LDP leadership appointments, as well as potential policy concessions.


Suga has already conceded the LDP’s Policy Research Council chairperson position to Hakubun Shimomura and the General Council chairperson position to Tsutomu Sato, who belong to rival factions. His main Cabinet postings further reflect LDP factional politics, and his sub-Cabinet postings will likely follow suit.


Ties with the bureaucracy

After nearly eight years as the chief Cabinet secretary, Suga certainly has no shortage of ties within the bureaucracy.


But wait. The question now is: Who becomes Suga’s “Suga?”


One of the key contributors to Abe’s longevity was the stability that Suga provided as chief Cabinet secretary, but how will Suga fill the void that he’s going to vacate?


Suga left impossibly large shoes to fill, not just with his capability of managing the government, but also his brutal work schedule. Reports indicate that it will be Health Minister Katsunobu Kato, a long-time Cabinet member in the Abe administration. Kato served as a deputy chief Cabinet secretary from 2012 to 2014, but Suga will need to temper his expectations and to resist the temptation to micromanage issues involving the bureaucracy.


Neither of those things will be easy for someone who held the chief Cabinet secretary position for so long, but if the party leverages Suga to give the post to a factions-based appointee rather than a personal confidant, it will be even more challenging for him.


Ties with opposition parties

Suga is not known for his ability to reach across the table to work with opposition parties. For the past eight years, those functions have fallen to other Cabinet and party members.


Suga will now have to take on the responsibility of managing parliamentary politics in addition to running the government.


With a new opposition party currently coalescing, Suga will have to decide on his approach: collaboration or steamrolling. Each has its potential benefits and pitfalls. Either way, Suga does not have a strong base from which to start in his engagements with the opposition.


Personal popularity and public relations

Fortunately for “Uncle Reiwa,” Suga already has familiarity among the public. But it’s painfully obvious that familiarity will only carry him so far.

The public knows him as prime minister’s de facto No. 2, along with all of the privileges and baggage that title carries.


While Suga is likely to start out with a respectable Cabinet approval rating, he will have to do something in the near term that demonstrates that the public’s initial approval was well-founded, otherwise those numbers can dip quickly, and along with it, his political capital.


Support from the business community

Suga is a nontraditional LDP leader, and part of that means that he does not have deep ties with the business community or Keidanren (Japanese Business Federation).


Keidanren’s influence has waned over the years, but with the pandemic-driven recession, Suga will have to curry support from the business community to rejuvenate the economy. He will have much work to do on this front as soon as he enters the office.


International Reputation

The simple fact is that Suga does not have much experience on the international stage.


That’s not to say that he has not dealt with foreign diplomats and government officials, but it has almost always been on his own turf in Tokyo.

Suga should count himself lucky that the COVID pandemic has slowed global travel: This will afford him time in the coming months to cultivate international relationships through video teleconferences and phone calls.


In the meantime, he will have to improve his foreign policy knowledge through engagement with his National Security Secretariat and the Foreign Ministry.

Given all these considerations, Suga is entering the Prime Minister’s Office with intraparty bills to pay and much work to do to establish himself.


Throw in the possibility of a snap election, and the tasks at hand become even more herculean.


Fortunately for Suga, he is no stranger to hard work. However, we will soon see if his famously rigorous work ethic is enough to overcome the transition from government administrator to government leader.


Dr. Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He previously served in the Japanese government as a Mansfield fellow.

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