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Yoshihide Suga won the race to succeed Shinzo Abe as leader of the Liberal Democratic party and prime minister of Japan in a landslide last year. He was the continuity candidate, vowing to carry on Abe’s policies; the competence candidate, known for his powerplays behind scenes; and the consensus candidate, unaligned with any of the party’s large organised factions.
Those qualities were his strength — but they also turned out to be his weakness and help explain why he has resigned. The promise of continuity left him struggling to define a policy agenda of his own, something his successor will need to do to endure; his image of competence was undermined by a perceived failure to get a grip on Covid-19; and his election by consensus meant that none of the underlying tensions in the LDP after eight years of Abe were resolved, with the party’s younger generation shut out of the top jobs. His position was always weaker than it looked.
Immediately after taking office, Suga made the fateful decision not to call a general election — which he would most likely have won comfortably — but to govern for the last year of the current Diet. However, the purpose of his administration never became clear. Officials in the Kantei, as the prime minister’s office is known, muttered about Suga’s reluctance to delegate. His defiantly uncharismatic public presence, which had served him well as a government spokesperson, was less suited to the role of frontman and national leader.
Suga did have policies of his own, such as reducing mobile phone charges, creating an agency for digital government and allowing fertility treatment to be covered under national health insurance. But they did not add up to a coherent vision for Japan in the same way as Abe’s message of national economic revival. The one big change Suga did make, and his legacy to the world, was a vow to achieve net-zero carbon emissions in Japan by 2050.
The lack of much purpose might not have mattered had times been good. But they were not: while Japan’s response to Covid was relatively successful by global standards, the government was slow to roll out vaccines, declined to finance generous furloughs and pushed ahead with an unpopular Tokyo Olympics. A different leader might have struggled just as much — but that was also why potential rivals were happy to let Suga take the top job.
Suga’s failure to last more than a year does not necessarily mean Japan must go back to the tumultuous era that brought six different prime ministers between 2006 and 2012. To establish a strong premiership, however, the next leader of the LDP will need to get past Covid and lay out a policy vision that persuades the public, giving the leader leverage to tame the party’s internal factions. With a general election imminent, the LDP needs a candidate with popular appeal.
The most obvious choice is Taro Kono, a former foreign and defence minister, who is known for his lively presence on social media. Another declared runner is Fumio Kishida, another former foreign minister, who is less popular with the public but well-placed to cut deals within the LDP.
More candidates are likely to explore a run, if only to put down a marker for the future — but it is the choice between vote winner and party apparatchik that will reveal whether the LDP is truly ready to move on from Abe and enter a new era of government.