SINGAPORE: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is the longest-serving Japanese leader on record, credited with pulling Japan out of its post-bubble recessionary economy since he took office in December 2012.
This was done through his brand of economics, known as Abenomics, aimed at addressing Japan’s low inflation problem, decreasing worker productivity and the challenges raised by an ageing population.
Abe has also been credited for restoring relations with China after a bilateral maritime dispute soured relations from 2012 to 2013.
That is why there was a wave of concern in the international media recently when PM Abe was admitted to the Keio Hospital for check-ups on Aug 24 and Aug 17, drawing attention to his health.
Due to the open transparency requirements of political office holders in Japan, his previously disclosed ailment of chronic colitis is not a new issue. It was the main cause of his resignation during his first term in office from 2006 to 2007.
The ailment was managed well in his second term with the use of a new drug.
Nevertheless, the visits were sufficient to trigger media speculation over leadership succession within the party.
CONCERNING TIME FOR LEADERSHIP SUCCESSION
If any potential leadership change takes place hypothetically, there are two narratives about its timing.
For one, critics of the administration consider these medical check-ups to be an honourable way for the Prime Minister to leave office based on legitimate health reasons.
This year alone, Abe has come under criticism from the opposition parties for his plan to raise the retirement age of prosecutors. Critics charged that his government has reacted too slowly to COVID-19.
A poll by Nikkei TV in May showed that 55 per cent of the respondents did not agree with Abe’s handling of the crisis though the NHK poll released on Aug 12 showed that 58 per cent of those who support the Cabinet said it is better than other ministerial line-ups.
However, many Abe allies and their Japanese supporters do not see the need to change leadership in the middle of an economic crisis and a pandemic. They have argued political continuity will be key in this battle.
As of Aug 27, Japan has recorded 63,822 confirmed COVID-19 cases with 1,209 deaths. At 45th highest number of cases overall in the world, these are relatively low numbers in advanced economies.
It has suffered its worst economic growth in the post-war period, as its second quarter GDP dropped at an annualised rate of 27.8 per cent though its 7.8 per cent drop from the previous quarter makes it the best performing economy among G7 economies.
Despite criticisms, there is also a tacit acknowledgement that Abe is probably Japan’s best bet to engineer a credible response to the COVID-19 pandemic. He has after all provided a strong economic policy response to the post-bubble economy since coming into office.
There is also concern and recognition that many of his potential successors may not have the necessary factional support of leading the country out of economic difficulties yet.
THE CONTENDERS FOR THE POST
Contenders being highlighted by the media include younger members of Abe’s cabinet: Toshimitsu Motegi, who is a trusted Abe confidante, negotiator for the US-Japan free trade agreement and now the country’s Foreign Minister; Health Minister Katsunobu Kato, Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi, Defence Minister Taro Kono who is also a Washington insider, former Foreign Minister and the son of veteran China-hand and former Speaker of the House Yohei Kono.
In terms of dark horse candidates, another name floated in the media is that of former economy, trade and industry minister Yuko Obuchi - the daughter of former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi who was replaced in 2000 due to a stroke while Yuko stepped down due to a scandal.
She stands out as the only female candidate in this race mentioned in the media though current Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike’s name was momentarily also mentioned.
Besides these younger politicians, two veterans have also been touted as potential candidates: Yoshihide Suga, a trusted Abe ally and Chief Cabinet Secretary, and former LDP Secretary General Shigeru Ishiba who was formerly also Abe’s main rival and contender for prime ministership.
Since 2019, Japan’s media has scrutinised these candidates. At various points, different candidates have enjoyed more attention since speculation that Abe may call for a snap election to renew his mandate was afoot, even though his current term lasts until September 2021.
JAPAN’S BEST BETS FOR SUCCESSION
That speculation continued this week as news of Abe’s illness broke. This time, it was Foreign Minister Motegi’s turn to enjoy the media spotlight.
Presently, Motegi is also the favourite to succeed Abe. Motegi’s success in building factional support, especially from the powerful Taro Aso - the current Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) and Finance Minister – faction could prove useful in the current pandemic and economic scenarios.
This is an essential step for any would-be PM aspirant as the consensus seeking nature of the Japanese political system requires its leader to be a skilful aggregator of the different interests of all stakeholders, rather than behave like an authoritarian leader.
His dine-in meeting with Aso on Jul 31 was highly publicised and has positioned him as a strong and driven leader who can mobilise factional support to manage the multiple crises facing Japan.
Motegi’s biggest obstacle is perceived to be the faction of Wataru Takeshita, the former Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) General Council Chairperson, which previously split along the lines of support for Abe in the 2018 LDP Presidential election.
In the last two years, Fumio Kishida, former Foreign Minister and now chairman of the LDP’s Policy Research Council, enjoyed media attention as a candidate for political succession.
But, due to the pandemic, Kishida’s clout has weakened in 2020 as his COVID-19 relief plan was dropped in favour of an alternative plan advocated by LDP’s coalition partner, the Komeito Party.
He also carries the image of a dovish peacetime leader rather than a strong crisis leader who has to handle severe ongoing China-US tensions, challenging bilateral relations with South Korea, as well as managing the devastating economic impact of COVID-19.
In fact, before the emergence of Motegi as frontrunner, veteran Suga was floated as an alternative candidate since he enjoys factional support inside the party and has a positive working relationship with LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai.
Another who has impressed in recent times is Koike. In addition to providing gender diversity, the Tokyo Governor has been heralded by the media for her skilful management of the COVID-19 mitigation measures in Tokyo.
Her success in doing so may convince Japan’s lawmakers that she could replicate that formula on the national level too.
As for future leaders-in-waiting, 2019 witnessed the emergence of a young and rising political star – Koizumi. He is the second son of charismatic former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and the third youngest individual to assume a cabinet-level post in Japanese political history.
Koizumi’s ministerial portfolio is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it has given him much-needed crisis management experience.
As Environment Minister, he has to manage the fallout from the damaged Fukushima nuclear reactor, given domestic and international concerns over its leakage.
Barely a month into his ministerial post in 2019, Koizumi was already put to the test in the public eye when Japan was hit by a series of typhoons, including Typhoon Hagibis, the deadliest typhoon to have directly hit Tokyo in half a century.
Many consider Koizumi to be a Washington insider as he is well-acquainted with Washington DC’s corridors of power as well as top Japan specialists and academics in the US.
Koizumi graduated with a Masters in Political Science from Columbia University and interacted with top US-based Japan specialists while he also worked in the well-known US think-tank Center for Strategic and International Studies.
His political pedigree as the fourth generation in his family to be in politics, US education and familiarity with Washington hands are advantageous to his future political ambitions, putting him in good stead for managing international relations in a future leadership role.
His charismatic popularity with the Japanese public is another plus point. If he becomes prime minister, he can help win back support for the government, which according to opinion polls stands at 49 per cent.
JAPAN’S POLITICAL FUTURE APPEARS BRIGHT
While having a competent and experienced prime minister could be crucial, Japan’s population can take heart knowing that, regardless, the leader of their country will have access to a highly-competent bureaucracy that not only enjoys wide public support and legitimacy but also provides sound and experienced policy advice.
While it is yet unclear if Abe will or need to step down, at least the attention on his health issues has opened up a conversation on what Japan’s political future after Abe may look like.
Even if there is no change in the prime minister appointment, it seems a whole new generation of younger leaders have emerged to take over the baton in any post-Abe scenario.
The state of Japanese leadership succession is energetically competitive with no lack of credible candidates. That may be a bright spot in an otherwise challenging period for the nation.
Dr Lim Tai Wei is Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore.