Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga was elected new president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) on Sept. 14. After a Diet vote to appoint the new prime minister of Japan scheduled for Sept 16, a new Cabinet led by Suga is expected to be launched.
In the LDP's leadership election, Suga captured 377 votes, or more than 70% of all ballots cast in the poll, sweeping him into the party presidency. His rival candidates, former Foreign Minister and current LDP policy chief Fumio Kishida and former Defense Minister and former party Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba, received only 89 votes and 68 votes, respectively.
As was well expected, Suga widened support from among Diet members to secure their votes and also clinched over 60% of regional votes cast by representatives of the LDP's prefectural chapters.
Ishiba, meanwhile, showed his strength when it came to regional votes, securing 42 votes, or around 30%. Ishiba is known to have taken a critical stance against the handling of the government by outgoing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The fact that Ishiba attracted a certain proportion of regional votes is believed to represent frustrations among the party's regional chapters against the status quo.
At stake in the latest LDP presidential race was whether the party was set to succeed the policy course taken by the Abe administration, which spanned a good seven years and eight months, or to rectify it and even shift away from it.
However, who would win or lose in the LDP election had already been made clear before its campaigning period officially kicked off on Sept. 8. Shortly after Prime Minister Abe announced his intention to step down, five out of the LDP's seven factions scrambled to express their support for Suga -- with the Nikai faction led by party Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai heralding the moves.
Many of those factions cited the current situation surrounding the novel coronavirus infections as their reasons to rally around Suga, who advocated an inheritance of the Abe regime.
In reality, however, those factions -- which were mainstream groups under Prime Minister Abe's predominance -- sought a candidate who was convenient to them in their bid to preserve the current power structure.
These intra-party factions apparently just attempted to jump on the bandwagon at any rate, while putting policy debate on the back-burner. Their actions were selfish in prioritizing their factional interests.
Under the Abe administration, which made a distinction between allies and foes, legislators who raised objections to the policies of the prime minister's office and non-mainstream factions were thoroughly sidelined. The psyche among Diet members that they must always stay in the mainstream forces apparently led to Suga's landslide victory.
Following his election as new LDP chief, Suga stated, "I have a mission to take over Prime Minister Abe's efforts and push them forward." Yet what we see is Suga merely highlighting the inheritance of Abe's policy measures, while lacking a larger vision for what issues he is going to carry forward and what kind of nation he wants Japan to become.
The benefits of the "Abenomics" economic policy mix, promoted by the Abe administration, have not sufficiently reached out to the middle-class population, small- and mid-sized businesses or regional areas. While both Kishida and Ishiba raised an issue with the situation during the LDP presidential race, Suga only underscored the fruits of Abenomics and stopped short of referring to the issue of rectifying economic disparities.
Furthermore, Suga did not clarify his perceptions about efforts to achieve fiscal health and sustainability of Japan's social security system.
While Suga upheld a policy to promote "self-help, mutual aid and public assistance" in the party leadership race, the way society stands would largely differ depending on the priority order of those principles. Suga did not make it clear which of those three principles he would attach priority to and what specific policy measures he would adopt to promote such an agenda.
On the diplomatic and security fronts, Suga said the Japan-U.S. alliance will remain the axis of Japan's foreign and security policies and repeatedly vowed to follow Prime Minister Abe's policies in those spheres. However, as the international situation has become increasingly obscure due to intensifying tensions between the U.S. and China, the lack of Suga's own words on his diplomatic and security strategies leaves us in uncertainty.
The Abe administration was riddled with a host of scandals, including cronyism allegations over the massively discounted sale of state property to nationalist school operator Moritomo Gakuen, which had ties to Prime Minister Abe's wife Akie; the establishment of a new veterinary school at a university operated by the Kake Educational Institution headed by Abe's close friend; and the annual cherry blossom-viewing parties hosted by the prime minister, in which many members of his local political support group were invited at the cost of taxpayers' money. Regarding these scandals, Suga has maintained a stance that those problems have been resolved. However, the government cannot restore public trust unless it is resolved to face up to those allegations.
In the latest party election, the LDP leadership skipped a vote by rank-and-file party members on the grounds that it would cost time, even though a group of junior Diet legislators and others sought such a vote by collecting signatures from 145 members. Instead, the new party president was elected during a general meeting of LDP members of both chambers of the Diet.
The LDP leadership thereby laid out a situation where the alliance of intra-party factions has a greater effect by raising the weight of votes cast by LDP Diet members.
In announcing the results of the party presidential poll, the LDP merely revealed the combined figures of votes cast by Diet members and prefectural chapter executives. The party made no effort to proactively release the results of regional votes and primaries held by the prefectural chapters. However, the LDP ought to have publicly announced the detailed vote counts in order to make clear the intentions expressed by party members.
It appears that the LDP's internal logic goes unchallenged and the basic stance of a political party to listen to the voices of rank-and-file party members who are closer to voters has been disregarded.
Under the prolonged Abe administration, the LDP's functions to understand public demands and frustrations and relay them to the center of the administration have declined. This was apparently one of the reasons why the government's response over the novel coronavirus pandemic was such a far cry from what the public expected, leading to a lack of support for the government.
One is tempted to question whether the LDP can bring itself closer to becoming a political party that carefully lends an ear to the voices of the people, takes criticism against itself seriously and holds open public discussions. Suga bears grave responsibility for that mission to be achieved.