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Last Friday Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced his resignation for health reasons. Having come to power after a series of his predecessors' retirements, he embodied an era of domestic political stability and foreign policy changes. Will his successors be able to sustain the track Abe has been following for the past 8 years?
For a start, Abe's resignation did not come like a thunder-clap. The aggravated ulcerative colitis caused him to leave the Prime Minister's seat back in 2007. The Prime Minister's current state of health became known in advance due to leaks in the press, followed by reports of his undergoing in-depth examinations in Tokyo. In a nutshell, the public was prepared for such a turn of events.
By and large, the country's political world was also ready for this.
A few months ago Abe said he would not run for chairman of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in a year's time. This post guarantees the Prime Minister's seat, and the statement has therefore undoubtedly caused inner-party maneuvering over the possible successor. A puzzling issue, indeed.
On the one hand, Abe clearly articulated and started pursuing a policy of bringing the country's political influence in line with its economic capabilities, as well as increasing its role and independence as regards international affairs. In this context, he proclaimed waiving the mentality of an aggressor power defeated in World War II, increasing the armed forces' role in foreign policy based on revised pacifist provisions of the post-war Constitution, a proactive foreign policy, particularly towards Russia, and intensified the focus on Japan's more significant role in its military alliance with America and in solving regional security problems.
All these proceed from a broad strategic consensus in the country, and it should not depend on the successor's political preferences.
On the other hand, Abe's successor will have to maintain the chosen line amid challenging conditions. Political and military tensions between China and the United States are growing. Global political turbulence is fueled by the extremely nervous situation surrounding the US presidential election, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, as well as subsequent social tensions and the pre-crisis situation in global economy, which, judging by second-quarter statistics, is a lot acute in Japan than anywhere else.
The situation being what it is, Abe's successor also needs to retain the majority of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in the country's parliamentary election scheduled for December next year. Otherwise, all the ideas of amending the Constitution and in fact the country's new identity, on which Japan's new foreign policy should be built, will run into strong resistance from both the opposition and voters.
At the same time, Japanese political tradition and legislation suggest that the ruling party may dissolve the lower house of parliament at all reasonable time and call an early election. This kind of gambit is always unprofitable to the opposition. And the Liberal Democrats seem able to use these tools again, without waiting for an unpleasant pandemic-caused scenario in economy and the social sphere. An election campaign needs a strong figure.
Who could replace Abe as Prime Minister under such circumstances?
Former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, who currently holds the third most important post of LDP political council head and has claimed the title of "successor" to former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba, who competed with Abe, and Secretary General of the Cabinet Yoshihide Suga, the de facto second person in the government and the Prime Minister's right-hand man, declared their wish to compete for the vacant appointment. According to a Sunday poll by the Kyodo news agency, most Japanese people consider the candidacy of former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba most suitable for the country's Prime Minister. He enjoys support of 34.3% of respondents. The second most popular one is Cabinet Secretary General Yoshihide Suga with his 14.3%. At the same time, almost half of the Japanese (48%) are ready to vote for the LDP in the next elections to the lower house of parliament due in October 2021.
However, it seems that the one to choose will be Abe himself. You can't let things take their course at a time like this.
In fact, the new Prime Minister's candidacy will be determined by the September 14 emergency LDP congress, and three days later it is going to be approved by the lower house of Parliament where the party has a stable majority. Interestingly, despite his health, Abe has decided to retain the post of Prime Minister until the new one is elected. That is, he has not appointed a caretaker prime minister to be strongly limited in his powers, including parliament dissolution. Besides, in the absence of sufficient time, an emergency congress procedure is required with only MPs engaged, while a full-scale congress considers the votes of regional delegates either.
All of this creates certain advantages to Yoshihide Suga, who has worked shoulder to shoulder with the outgoing Prime Minister for the past 8 years. Moreover, as the Kyodo news agency reports, he may be supported by the second largest faction in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which is a key factor for winning party elections.
In short, Suga has a clear advantage over other candidates. And, judging by his previous government experience, he is the most suitable candidate to maintain the consistency of Abe's course. On the other hand, he does not have his own faction in the LDP and must, apparently, rely on his former boss.
It is quite possible that Abe, being true to the Japanese historical tradition, will give up on the particulars of public policy and leave only Japan's political stage, securing a firm place behind the scenes to ensure the country's devotion to the course he has being running over his eight years as Prime Minister.