Nagata-cho has called the new prime minister Yoshihide Suga both a “brawler” and a “cool-headed realist.” Suga has always pictured himself as being cut out for the role of advisor to the prime minister.
After joining the Lower House in 1996, Suga was involved in power struggles within the party from early on, disobeying faction leaders as well as the prime minister at the time.
In 1998, Suga left the Obuchi faction (now the Takeshita faction) to support his mentor (former chief cabinet secretary) Seiroku Kajiyama, who ran for the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) presidency against the faction leader, Keizo Obuchi. After Kajiyama’s candidacy failed, Suga joined another faction led by (then-LDP secretary-general) Koichi Kato. In 2000, Suga helped Kato in his failed attempt to force then-prime minister Yoshiro Mori to resign. Those events, though unsuccessful, gave Suga a larger presence in the party.
Suga was flexible about making deals with other parties as well if he judged these would be beneficial.
Cooperation with Komeito, the junior coalition partner, over the 2015 consumption tax hike provides a good example. Komeito was against an across-the-board tax hike, and insisted on applying a lower rate (8%) to foodstuffs to protect low- income households. The LDP and the Ministry of Finance were reluctant to accept Komeito’s proposal. As chief cabinet secretary, Suga went over the LDP senior executives’ heads to negotiate with Komeito.
During a discussion over the tax issue, Hiroshi Sato, chairman of Soka Gakkai (Komeito’s power base), told Suga: “Unless an exception is made for a lower tax rate, there will be no cooperation in elections.” After Suga was elected to the Diet from Kanagawa, he made the acquaintance of Sato, who was active in the prefecture. Since Suga became chief cabinet secretary, he and Sato have successfully consolidated each other’s support base through Suga’s position and Sato’s significant vote-collecting capability.
Eventually, Suga convinced then-prime minister Shinzo Abe and brought about the version of the tax increase Komeito had proposed. In the process, he even replaced the chairman of the LDP Research Commission on the Tax System. Some in the party were displeased with Suga’s forceful method to achieve his goal. Suga also disregarded his own words from the time he was first elected to the Diet: “We cannot put Japan’s future in the hands of a party that is controlled by a religious organization.”
He is willing to partner with the opposition as well. In the Osaka mayoral race in 2007, Suga, who was chairman of the LDP election strategy committee at the time, was asked to support the candidacy of lawyer Toru Hashimoto. Instead of running in 2007, Hashimoto ran in and won the gubernatorial race in 2008. Suga used his connection with Hashimoto to boost expectations for Abe in the 2012 presidential election.
Suga still cooperates with Nippon Ishin no Kai on such initiatives as the Osaka metropolis plan. LDP Diet members from Osaka complain, “Many local LDP supporters are unhappy about Suga,” but Suga doesn’t seem perturbed by their displeasure. Many describe Suga’s personal connections as “mutually beneficial strategic relations” forged through shared interests. (Abridged)