by Jon Day
TOKYO, Sept. 16 (Xinhua) -- Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga who took over the premiership earlier Wednesday having being selected at an extraordinary parliament session to be the nation's 99th prime minister will need to hit the ground running, political observers have said.
Suga, who succeeds former prime minister Shinzo Abe who late last month and just days after becoming the nation's longest-serving leader in terms of consecutive days in office abruptly announced that he planned to step down owing a recurrent health issue, has been vociferous abut carrying on many of Abe's policies as the nation faces a myriad of challenges.
In fact, in the run-up to his recent sweeping win in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's leadership race, Suga was dubbed the "continuity candidate" for ardently pledging to continue his predecessor's policies, a stance that secured the favor of the majority of intraparty factions within the LDP, helping propel him to the top spot.
"I think across the range of issues it will be business as usual," Hugo Dobson, Professor of Japan's International Relations and Head of Department at the National Institute of Japanese Studies and School of East Asian Studies at the University of Sheffield, Britain, told Xinhua.
"Suga was always the continuity candidate," Dobson added.
Suga, 71, the oldest prime minister to take office since Kiichi Miyazawa in 1991, has said his first priority is to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic wreckage it has and continues to create.
The new leader is expected to utilize the 230 trillion yen (2.2 trillion U.S. dollars) package allocated for tackling the COVID-19 outbreak here and has vowed to push forward with his predecessor's economic policies, including the "Abenomics" economic brand of aggressive monetary easing, fiscal stimulus and structural reforms.
But while his championing of "continuity" on the one hand connotes no drastic changes and a "business as usual" stance, as reflected in his picks for the ruling party's executive posts, as well as those of his Cabinet, some observers have suggested that some fresh ideas could be needed.
According to Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan, the Cabinet lineup of predominantly old, male, "familiar faces doesn't really inspire or offer prospects for fresh thinking regarding the pandemic and necessary economic countermeasures."
On the other hand, however, as the old adage goes, other pundits have suggested at a time of national crisis, perhaps the case may be: "Better the devil you know."
And while history will be the judge here, the fact is that Suga's Cabinet picks, as a testament to the future direction of his administration's policy, is full of familiar faces, with fifteen of Suga's picks for his 20-member Cabinet having held ministerial portfolios in the previous administration.
Some of these include LDP veteran heavyweights such as Finance Minister Taro Aso, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi.
Former health minister Katsunobu Kato was tapped as Chief Cabinet Secretary, a key post that functions as both a policy coordinator and the government's top spokesman. Kato is no stranger to the role having previously served as deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary under Suga between 2012 and 2015.
"I want to create a government that people can trust. I will push ahead with deregulation and put an end to ministry sectionalism, endemic vested interests and the practice of blindly following past precedents. I will create a working cabinet," Suga stated in his run-up to becoming prime minister.
All of these, political analysts have said, are absolute positives, although some have pointed out that details are still lacking and Suga, as Kingston explained, emphasizing "Jiko Sekinin" (individual responsibility), an ideological throwback to the era of Junichiro Koizumi, who was prime minister from 2001 to 2006, could be problematic.
"At a time when Japan is in an unprecedented economic slump, it is a stance that lacks empathy and also promises little headway on boosting consumption," which accounts for 60 percent of Japan's economy, Kingston told Xinhua.
As for the immediacy in tackling the virus, Suga said Wednesday that he, as was the case with Abe, will do all he can to prevent an explosive increase in cases.
He said he will expand the testing system and secure sufficient medical capacity, as well as trying to obtain enough vaccines, by the end of the first half of next year, to cover everyone, which some political observers here have suggested seems to be a "reasonable approach, at least for the time being."
Apart from dealing with the short-term economic damage the COVID-19 epidemic has caused by forcing people to stay home and sharply reducing tourism, Suga will also be charged with tackling the nation's demographic crisis.
This is comprised of a rapidly aging and simultaneously shrinking population, that has led to social welfare costs ballooning and weighing heavily on the government's balance sheet, and the labor force being hollowed out.
Suga's term as LDP president will be limited to the remainder of Abe's current three-year term through September 2021, however, speculation has been swirling that he may call a general election as early as next month to improve his chances of winning a full three-year term as LDP leader and capitalize on the party's popularity, which tends to improve after a leadership change.
Two of Suga's powerful supporters, Aso and Kono, have both hinted at a snap election being held soon with Aso saying that the next administration would likely face criticism for being formed without a public mandate.
Kono has made similar remarks, saying that he expects a general election in October.
Political experts have also not ruled out the possibility of a snap election being held, as it could be to Suga's benefit to call one sooner rather than later, Dobson told Xinhua.
"As regards a snap election, there has to be one by October 2021 so Suga might well call one," the expert said.
"He strikes me as being a bit of an unknown quantity, so it might benefit him to call an election sooner rather than later in order to benefit from a perceived desire for continuity and business as usual in an uncertain time," Dobson explained.
While highlighting the potential "aesthetic" of calling a snap election so soon, Kingston also said it could strengthen Suga's hand.
"The downside is that it may look like he is playing politics instead of devoting his attention to the pandemic, but he will never be more popular than during the honeymoon bounce...," said Kingston, adding, "It might strengthen his hand politically and improve chances he remains party president when Abe's term ends next September."
In terms of the international political calendar and Suga, as yet, largely being an unknown face on the global circuit, some observers said it may take a while for him to become as recognizable as some former prime ministers, among a host of forgettable ones during the LDP's protracted "revolving door" era of leaders rapidly entering and exiting the top post.
"Internationally, I think Suga might struggle. He doesn't seem to have the personality of Koizumi or the profile of Abe internationally. There will be virtual/physical Group of Seven (G7) and G20 summits coming up by the end of the year," Dobson said.
But having been Abe's right-hand man for almost eight years, he may have his predecessor's "playbook" and if not, there's always the autocue, as Kingston explained, with Suga also having to content with the upcoming U.S. Presidential election, as well as the already postponed Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games.
"He doesn't have much presence, but meetings with leaders are carefully scripted so he can do okay," said Kingston. He went on to say, however, that at the moment a lack of vision might be a stumbling block, and Kingston drew comparisons with the "colorless" leaders that the world was used to before Koizumi and Abe.
That said, it is still early days, and Suga's popularity with the public here has grown since the beginning of the LDP leadership race.
On the domestic front, at least, in addition to being the poster boy for the "Reiwa Era" and known affectionately here as "Uncle Reiwa" among the Japanese youth, alongside the fact that his daily press briefings in his former role as top government spokesperson beamed his face into most households in Japan, he's a familiar face at home.
Congratulatory messages swiftly sent to Suga Wednesday on becoming prime minister from some of Japan's closest and most important neighbors are a testament to regional ties potentially deepening, a route Suga himself has said he is keen to take.
As for other potential complications in terms of foreign policy and potential shifts and changes that may lie ahead, again, as an old adage goes, Suga, the leader of the world's third largest economy will have to "go hard or go home," political commentators have said. Enditem