In an extraordinary parliament session in Tokyo on 16 September, Japan elected the new leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Toshihide Suga, as the country’s first prime minister to succeed Abe Shinzo who had made a surprise announcement on 28 August to demit office on health grounds. With this the Abe era ends much to the dismay of friends in India and in many countries. The legacy that he leaves behind shall remain for quite some time. As Suga readies to form a “continuity cabinet” and is expected to keep about half of the outgoing Cabinet, speculation is rife on what his domestic and foreign policy priorities would be.

Before attempting to analyse these, it might be pertinent to mention the significant but nobel peculiarities of the Japanese system and political culture wherein two recent developments deserve close look. The two developments that touched sentiments of the Japanese people in the past two years received extensive media attention in India. Japan’s Emperor Akihito abdicated after expressing his desire to do so in an August 2014 TV address. This required some procedural changes to be complied with and led to a new Reiwa era in 2019 when his son Naruhito succeeded him as the next Emperor. This was also on the ground that the outgoing emperor expressed his inability to discharge official responsibilities because of old age.

The other development is recent when Prime Minister Abe decided to demit office owing to health conditions. Normally politicians around the world, including in India, clung to office by hook or crook ignoring whether they are physically in a position to discharge official duties as they are addicted to power and the glamour attached to the office.

Finding a successor to Abe was a smooth affair. That happened on 14 September when the ruling LDP, enjoying a comfortable majority in the Lower House, ensured a smooth political transition. In the factional politics that cloud Japan’s political culture and politics, there were three strong contenders ~ Chief Cabinet Secretary Toshihide Suga, former Defence Minister Shigeru Ishiba and former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida. The current deputy prime minister Taro Aso, once a heavyweight, preferred to stay away from the race to be the king maker rather than the king and backed Suga to succeed Abe. In the presidential election for the party chief held on 14 September, Suga, a loyal aide to Abe won a landslide victory.

In the leadership election Suga (71) won 377 votes out of 534 votes cast, while Ishiba won 68 votes and Kishida got 89. With the LDP enjoying a majority in the Lower House, Suga was easily elected as the prime minister in a parliamentary vote on 16 September, allowing him to serve out Abe’s term as party leader through September 2021.

What would Suga’s priorities be now? Would he continue with Abe’s signature “Abenomics” strategy of a hyper-easy monetary policy, government spending and reforms while dealing with the pandemic and a slumping economy, and confronting longer-term issues such as Japan’s aging population and low birth rate? Soon after his election as party president, Suga promised to continue with the reforms started by Abe, which means that there shall be continuity in policies without major deviations. Suga counts the revitalisation of the regional economy as one of his key priorities.

What is Suga’s political background?

Suga is less charismatic than Abe but has deep insights in the governance process and how to deal with the bureaucracy and get results. His background is humble. Born on 6 December 1948 in a snow-covered village in the northern prefecture of Akita to strawberry farmer Wasaburo and schoolteacher Tatsu, Suga tended the field as a child and being the eldest son, was expected to eventually take on the family business. Suga’s father Wasaburo worked for South Manchuria Railway Co. during World War II. On his return to Japan, he developed a late-harvest variety of strawberry following the country’s surrender. It proved a hit, selling for a premium to city dwellers. Suga was reluctant to become a farmer himself and after high school he ran away from home to find work in Tokyo.

He ended up at a cardboard factory but quickly became disillusioned and quit, enrolling at Hosei University in 1969. He had no interest in the wave of student protests against the Japan-US security alliance and the Vietnam War sweeping the country at the time and got busy with a number of odd jobs such as working as a security guard and low-level newsroom assistant to pay his way through school. He did make time for sports, becoming vice-captain of the karate team.

After graduating and joining an electrical maintenance company, Suga grew interested in politics and became a Diet member’s secretary, learning the ins and outs of the trade for more than a decade before successfully running for the Yokohama city assembly in 1987.

His political debut in national politics came in 1996 when the son of an aging member of the House of Representatives who was to take over his father’s constituency unexpectedly passed away, leaving open a spot to run on the Liberal Democratic Party ticket. Suga stepped in and won the seat at the age of 47. In contrast, his predecessor, the scion of a political dynasty, was groomed for office from a young age. That way, Suga is a self-made man scaling the political ladder by his own effort.

Suga received his first Cabinet position during Abe’s first stint in power from 2006 to 2007. As minister of internal affairs, he introduced a hometown tax programme that gives tax deductions for donations made to local governments in the countryside. Then, he played a key role in Abe’s return to power in late 2012. Since then he has led a regimented and disciplined life that has helped in his political journey.

(To Be Concluded)

The writer, a leading expert on Japan, was formerly Senior Fellow at the IDSA