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As I See It: This year's lower house election will call Japan's democracy into question

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga takes his mask off before starting his first press conference of the year at the prime minister's office in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward, on the morning of Jan. 4, 2021. (Mainichi/Kan Takeuchi)

The four-year term for members of Japan's House of Representatives ends in October this year, by which point there will be a general election. Compared to the surprise snap elections that previous Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called to "carry out a referendum on a postponement of the consumption tax hike" and "to overcome national crisis" in 2014 and 2017, respectively, the public will be able to approach this year's election with thoughtfulness. So what kind of questions will Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga be posing to the public when it comes?

    The government designated three weeks from late November through mid-December 2020 as a "make or break" period in the battle against coronavirus infections. But Japan lost that challenge. At a Dec. 25 press conference, Suga said, "I've received criticism that implementing infection countermeasures and the Go To Travel domestic tourism subsidy campaign simultaneously doesn't make sense, and is anxiety-inducing. My explanations to the public were in some ways insufficient."

    Suga has not wavered from his time as chief Cabinet secretary to Abe in brushing off concerns of a renewed spread of infections and introducing the Go To Travel campaign. It was not so much that he fell one step behind in implementing measures, but rather that he took a confident gamble that economic activity and prevention of infection could be compatible. And he lost.

    I have been reporting on Suga since before the launch of the first Abe administration. If I were to describe him through his political approach in one word, it would be "gambler." When it comes to a power grab, he will put all his political assets on the line.

    Prior to the start of the first and second Abe administrations, he was the first to move behind the scenes to create a path for Abe to win the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) presidency and hence the prime minister's seat. In September 2020, he moved quickly to cooperate with LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai to secure the prime minister's position for himself.

    However, the late Seiroku Kajiyama, who withdrew from the LDP's then Obuchi faction (currently the Takeshita faction) to run in the party's presidential race, and whom Suga regards as his mentor, lost. As the LDP's deputy election chairman in the administration of then Prime Minister Taro Aso, Suga preached caution on an early dissolution of the lower house and a snap general election, and in the chamber's election the following year, the LDP lost in a bloodbath.

    At first glance, Suga may seem to have had large victories, but he's had a lot of defeats as well, of which he himself is very much aware.

    After falling short in November-December's three-week challenge to curb the spread of the coronavirus, the Suga Cabinet's approval ratings plummeted. There have been murmurs within the LDP that they cannot fight an election with Suga as leader. If approval ratings continue to stay low, it may spark discussion on who will be the "face" of the party in the election. That would mean efforts would be made within the party to bring Suga down, either through the September party leadership election, or even sooner than that, before the general election.

    How would Suga respond to such moves? He will likely ask the public to evaluate his main policy achievements, such as bringing down cellphone rates and establishing a digital agency. If the Tokyo Games are held this summer as planned, there may well be economic fruits of the Go To Travel campaign as well. Suga thus far has taken the stance that if one gambles and wins, public opinion will follow without further explanation. Just because he is now prime minister, his way of thinking and operating cannot be expected to change overnight. Even if he faces protest from his own party, Suga likely wants to put everything he has to a referendum -- or a snap general election, but it will all depend on the coronavirus situation.

    There are other issues separate from what Suga may have in mind, however. In addition to Suga, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Kazuhiro Sugita has been working in the prime minister's office for the Abe and Suga administrations for over eight years. During this time, the Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs (with Sugita as bureau chief) was newly established to consolidate the management of top officials at government ministries and agencies. Essentially, it was the actualization of political and administrative reforms that have been ongoing since the 1990s, to make top-down decision-making speedier.

    But this distorted the relationship between politicians and bureaucrats. While bureaucrats were meant to conduct administrative duties in a neutral position, politicians came to hold a position that was overwhelmingly superior to the bureaucracy. It came to be said that senior bureaucrats learned to surmise what the prime minister's office wanted from them, and that led to cases like the falsification of public records relating to the sale of state land to nationalist school operator Moritomo Gakuen. Meanwhile, Suga has publicly stated that he will have any senior bureaucrat who opposes policies decided upon by his administration "transferred."

    Interference by the prime minister's office in highly independent administrative bodies has also been striking. A plot to extend the retirement age of the head of the Tokyo High Public Prosecutors Office, Hiromu Kurokawa, so that he could later be appointed as prosecutor general, was a case of intervention by the prime minister's office. With the Science Council of Japan, the prime minister's office rejected the appointment of six new nominees. These are examples of matters in which administrations of the past had avoided interfering with out of consideration for the organizations' independence. But Prime Minister Suga takes no heed of any criticism, saying, "Members of the Science Council of Japan are national public servants, too."

    A Nov. 13, 2020 article in the Mainichi Shimbun reported that the prime minister's office applied pressure on appointments for the Supreme Court as well, and that Sugita instructed the Supreme Court to "bring the names of two (justice candidates) to me," effectively putting the appointment of Supreme Court justices under the control of the prime minister's office. According to a senior official at the prime minister's office, Suga, during his days as chief Cabinet secretary, was involved in personnel appointments of prosecutors and Supreme Court justices.

    The separation of the three branches of government as stipulated by the Constitution is a mechanism whereby a balance is struck among the administrative, legislative, and judicial branches of government to prevent the concentration of power and dictatorship. But because Abe repeatedly made remarks in the Diet that were untrue, confidence in the Diet has sunk, and LDP lawmakers are unable to speak their minds to the prime minister's office. While the details remain unclear, if the prime minister's office was in fact involved in the personnel appointments of prosecutors and the Supreme Court, it means that the administrative branch has become too powerful and the checks and balances of the three branches have been watered down.

    Prime Minister Suga has held up "the continuation of the Abe administration" as the mission of his own Cabinet. He is likely to continue and further reinforce the administrative structure that has been transformed in the past eight years. Looking at the international community, it is said that we are in an era of neo-imperialism in which China is beefing up its government authority and heightening pressure on foreign countries, and national interests collide. This year's general election will be an opportunity to question the merits and demerits of the longest administration that modern Japan has ever seen -- under former Prime Minister Abe. It will also bring into question the state of our country and our democracy.

    (Japanese original by Takenori Noguchi, Political News Department)

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