Yoshihide Suga: the son of a farmer who could be the next prime minister of Japan

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Yoshihide Suga is seen by many political analysts as a frontrunner to replace Prime Minister Abe, who announced last month he was stepping down due to complications from colitis, an uncurable inflammatory bowel disease he has been able to manage for most of his tenure.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) will vote on Monday to choose its replacement. Japan is not a presidential system – the head of the country is chosen by parliamentarians, so whoever the next PLD leader is should have an easy path to becoming prime minister.

Former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba are also in the running. If Suga is chosen, it will mark the peak of an incredible and unlikely political career for the 71-year-old.

The careers of Suga and Abe have been linked for nearly a decade since the latter became prime minister in 2012. Abe has become the country’s longest-serving ruler since the end of World War II.

Suga was Abe’s right-hand man the entire time, serving as secretary to the prime minister’s office, a role akin to a combination of chief of staff and press secretary.But the two couldn’t be more stylistically different. Abe is the charismatic descendant of one of Japan’s most important political dynasties, an important asset in a party system that values ​​pedigree. His father was Minister of Foreign Affairs and he is linked to two former prime ministers.

Suga is the son of a farmer, and he’s known as a pragmatic trader behind the scenes. He grew up in rural Akita Prefecture and moved to Tokyo after high school. He then worked a series of odd jobs – including one at a cardboard factory and another at the famous Tsukiji fish market – to save money for college, which he then attended part-time while at the same time. working.

Suga entered the fast-paced, punishing world of Japanese salaried men after graduation, but it didn’t last. Politics was what shaped and impacted the world, and that’s what he wanted to do.

So he decided to run for the Yokohama City Council. Although he lacked connections and political experience, he made up for it with good humor and hard work. He campaigned door-to-door, visiting about 300 homes a day and 30,000 in total, according to the LDP. By the time of the election, he had worn out six pairs of shoes.

Suga’s rap has changed little since this campaign. Today he is known as a successful political operator who can be relied on to get things done – qualities that have made him a great right-hand man for Abe.

He was an important ally in the Prime Minister’s efforts to adopt a series of economic policies known as “Abenomics” – a combination of monetary stimulus, increased public spending and structural reforms, aimed at reviving the economy. stagnant economy in Japan.

If chosen to be prime minister, Suga should be something of an “Abe surrogate,” said Kazuto Suzuki, vice dean and professor of international politics at Hokkaido University.

Suzuki said it’s possible LDP members might try to capitalize on Abe’s brief spike in popularity after announcing his resignation; Abe’s approval ratings were heading south before. A poll conducted by the Mainichi, one of Japan’s largest newspapers, before Abe’s resignation was announced, found that 58.4% of those polled were unhappy with his handling of the pandemic. And his approval rating had dropped to 36%, the lowest since 2012.

Brad Glosserman, an expert on Japanese politics, said Suga has yet to show “that he’s kind of a real departure from either the Abe line or even the mainstream of the LDP in general.” ”

“He has a very good story… He’s really a self-made man. The question, however, is to what extent he has a personality that can shine, ”said Glosserman, author of“ Peak Japan: The End of Big Ambitions. ”

This could prove to be a difficult task. Abe is stepping down amid widespread dissatisfaction with his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the economic crisis that followed, which has provided his political opponents with an opening.

Major issues such as massive public debt and an aging population loom large, and despite Abe’s public calls for reforms for gender equality in the workplace, critics say he has failed to close the gender gap in the country or address issues that prevent greater participation of women in the economy and politics.

If elected, Suga could be forced to sell himself to the public very soon. The government is due to hold another general election by October 2021, but Defense Minister Taro Kono said on Wednesday that early elections could be called as early as next month.

As chief secretary to the cabinet, Suga was widely regarded as a successful spokesperson as he was able to deliver a message without overshadowing him or his boss. But this same skill could prove to be a problem in the senior position, where oratory and charisma are important traits in communicating a message to the public.

“No one really knows who this man is. He worked behind the scenes, ”Glosserman said of Suga. “He has not yet developed and presented an image to the Japanese public that they will be able to rally and support. ”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Yoshihide Suga’s age. He is 71 years old.

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