A new leader for Japan

Another small milestone: this is our 1,200th post.

Japan has a new prime minister this week, with Yoshihide Suga sworn in as the replacement for Shinzo Abe, who announced his retirement last month due to ill health. Suga was chosen by a large margin over two opponents by an electoral college of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Not so long ago, a new Japanese prime minister would hardly have excited much comment, since they came and went in rapid succession. Following the retirement of Eisaku Sato in 1972, Japan went through 16 of them in 29 years – an average of less than 22 months each. Yasuhiro Nakasone was the longest serving, at just short of five years.

Most of them were colorless party functionaries; few were under sixty. In 2001 the party broke the mould, or tried to, with the election of Junichiro Koizumi, who was relatively young (59) and a charismatic reformer. He served for more than five years, and on his retirement in 2006 was succeeded by Abe, who at 52 became the youngest prime minister since the Second World War.

But instability quickly returned. Abe resigned after a year with health problems, and his two successors lasted only a year each before the conservative LDP was defeated in the 2009 election. The new centrist government also had three prime ministers in as many years, and finally lost in a landslide in 2012, which returned Abe and the LDP to power. Almost eight years in office have made him the country’s longest-serving leader.

Now the LDP appears to be reverting to type. Suga is 71, six years older than Abe, and his leadership is expected to be an interim measure before the next election, due by October next year. The BBC reports that “His public face is that of the unsmiling and seemingly charmless government spokesman.”

The system’s inability to sustain long-term leaders may seem surprising in view of the LDP’s degree of dominance. Since its foundation in 1955 it has been out of office for only two short periods: in 2017 I described it as “perhaps the most successful political party in the democratic world.” (Helped very much by a badly malapportioned electoral system.)

But the fact that Japan resembles a one-party state seems to have only fuelled the instability; never having to worry too much about the opposition, the LDP’s factional leaders spend their time fighting one another. Abe’s claim to fame is that he managed to suppress this tendency, at least for a time. The question is whether he leaves the country with any more substantial legacy.

You can read various assessments of Abe’s record: here’s Craig Mark at the Conversation; here’s H.D.P. Envall at Inside Story; and here’s Yuko Kato at the BBC. The general theme is that things started off well, and that Abe’s economic program (“Abenomics”) was a modest success, but that the difficulties and contradictions of the job gradually overwhelmed him.

The government’s response this year to Covid-19 received particularly bad reviews, although compared to much of the world the outcomes have been relatively good. Foreign affairs have also been a difficult area, with Abe unwilling to make a clear break with Japan’s nationalist past, although his attempts to revise its anti-militarist constitution have been unsuccessful.

Despite the clear signs of public dissatisfaction, there is little to suggest that voters will actually turn away from the LDP when the election is held. Polls show it continuing to command a large lead over a divided opposition, and it has a big parliamentary majority as a cushion. Suga, or whoever is in charge by then, will be well placed.

And Japan remains a peaceful, prosperous and orderly country, for which the LDP deserves a measure of credit. But a more competitive political system would probably help in finding solutions to its various problems.

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