TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) – The last time a long-serving Japanese prime minister stepped down, the country saw about six leaders in quick succession who each only managed to last for about a year.
Shinzo Abe, who is set to hand over power on Wednesday (Sept 16), then brought stability over an eight-year period that saw him become Japan’s longest-serving prime minister.
The challenge now is for his designated successor, Yoshihide Suga, to continue that run.
“If anyone has a chance of breaking the ‘curse,’ it’s Suga,” said Tobias Harris, an analyst at advisory firm Teneo Intelligence and author of a new biography of Abe.
“His ability to control the bureaucracy, his relationships with the ruling coalition, and the public’s desire to avoid a return to the revolving door all suggest that he could be well positioned to win a term of his own next year and wield power for several years.”
Suga, the 71-year-old son of a northern strawberry farmer, easily won a vote Monday to lead the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and will be formally installed as prime minister during a parliamentary vote on Wednesday.
He’ll initially serve the remaining year of Abe’s term in office, though some key party members have raised the prospect he may soon call an election to get a fresh mandate while the opposition remains weak.
Despite the devastation to the economy due to the coronavirus, Suga inherits a relatively stable Japan: Abe gradually improved frayed ties with China, safeguarded Japan’s military and economic interests after US President Donald Trump took office and eased worries in financial markets.
Investors had little reaction to Suga’s victory on Monday, signalling they don’t see a departure from the path of Abenomics – a prospect that could send the yen surging and stocks sliding.
The ease of Suga’s victory is a good sign for his ability to manage the LDP factions.
The party coalesced around him almost as soon as Abe announced his intent to step down over health issues in late August.
Instead of a bruising fight, faction bosses opted for an election system that favoured Suga, and within two days had lined up enough support for him to win – even before official campaigning had started.
While Suga doesn’t have his own formal faction, he has honed his skills as a pragmatic backroom fixer during his time as Japan’s longest-serving chief cabinet secretary.
His strong alliances with the likes of Toshihiro Nikai, an influential faction leader as well as LDP secretary general, underpinned his win on Monday.
In a sign of maintaining stability, Finance Minister Taro Aso, a faction boss who backed Suga, will retain his cabinet post in the new government, the Nikkei newspaper reported Tuesday without attribution.
Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi will also stay in his post when the new cabinet is announced Wednesday, broadcaster NTV said.
Suga also has certain advantages over Abe’s predecessors who quickly lost public support due to policy stumbles or scandals.
In the 50 years prior to Abe’s record run, Japan averaged a new prime minister about every two years.
For one, Suga’s blessed with an opposition that has largely failed to pose a threat in terms of voter support over the past eight years.
A series of LDP prime ministers saw their policy agendas stymied in the opposition-dominated Upper House of Parliament, culminating in the party’s historic election defeat to the Democratic Party of Japan in 2009.
An expanded opposition bloc regrouped last week under leader Yukio Edano, who vowed to demand Parliament open to debate coronavirus policy.
But a poll in the Mainichi newspaper showed that two-thirds of respondents didn’t have positive expectations for the main opposition bloc.
“I don’t think there’s a high probability of a quick turnover of prime ministers,” said Yu Uchiyama, a professor at the University of Tokyo who has written books on Japanese politics.
“The reasons why that happened before were weak standing within the party enabling powerful factions to oust a premier, or a ‘twisted Parliament’ that hampered management.”
Still, hurdles that have tripped up other leaders are in Suga’s path, including a campaign finance scandal with some of his associates and arrests for bribery related to his pet project of opening casino resorts in Japan.
Suga hasn’t been directly implicated in any of these issues.
And while the factions back him now, they have a history of being fickle.
The LDP at times has seemed more content to shuffle top posts among factions to maintain internal stability than back a leader for the long term – a trend that could reemerge if Suga makes some early missteps.
The new leader will also take charge of an economy that saw the biggest contraction on record in the April-June quarter as the virus hit consumption.
While its Covid-19 death toll is by far the lowest of any Group of Seven country, the cabinet’s handling of the pandemic has often come in for criticism.
One wild card is Suga’s skill in timing elections – a factor that helped Abe stay in power so long.
In 2017, he and Abe cut off a bid for the top job by Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike by calling a snap election before her new group was prepared.
Suga has said he doesn’t think the country’s in a situation to call an election due to the virus – and polls indicate the public agrees.
But that could change as a second Covid-19 wave fades: Tokyo successfully held a governor election in July.
With the LDP almost guaranteed victory whenever the vote is held in the coming year, Suga could then head into the 2021 party leadership election with a huge advantage as the incumbent prime minister, opening the way for another term at the top – and keeping the revolving door firmly shut.
“A long administration gives you more influence in the international community,” and Japan has learned there are merits to that from an economic point of view as well, said LDP lawmaker Shigeharu Aoyama, who sees Suga staying for at least three years.
“I don’t think we will return to the times when we had a new prime minister every year,” he said in an interview.