Dhaka Courier

Japan after Shinzo Abe

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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe answers a question during his press conference in Japan, at the Prime Minister’s office in Tokyo. Photo: AP/UNB

Since early August 2020, speculations in Japanese media intensified about an early resignation of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe from office on the ground of his deteriorating health conditions. He reportedly visited the hospital twice in the recent days with complaints of chronic inflammatory bowel disease known as ulcerative colitis - an illness he had struggled to cope with since his adolescence. It is the same ailment that forced him to resign earlier in 2007 only after a year in the office. The mute question that kept on making the rounds was not if but when. Abe was going to make the announcement.

Following his resignation in 2007, Abe confided to this writer, who was the Bangladesh Ambassador to Japan at that time, that he had not given up his ambition of becoming the prime minister of Japan again in the next couple of years. Creating history, he did make a comeback in 2012 and continued to serve uninterruptedly for nearly 8 years, setting a new record of becoming the longest serving prime minister of Japan and leaving a lasting legacy of his leadership.

Ending all the speculations, and sending a shock wave across the globe, Abe announced his intention to resign on 28 August 2020. He announced that he would leave office as soon as the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) chose his successor. The timing of his resignation, though seemingly precipitated by his chronic illness, coincided with his reaching the milestone of being the longest serving prime minister in the history of Japan leaving behind a legacy which is mostly untainted so far. No sooner the announcement of Abe's resignation was made public than a race for the leadership post began in earnest with a number of LDP stalwarts throwing their hats into the ring including. Taro Aso, former prime minister and incumbent minister for finance, Fumio Kishida, LDP Policy Chief, Shigeru Ishiba, former defence Minister, and Yoshihide Suga, Chief Cabinet Secretary and some other younger aspirants. Taro Aso, a very close friend of Bangladesh, withdrew his candidature just in days, pledging his support for Suga and leaving the other three to contest in a tight race.

That Shinzo Abe will step down was in the grapevine for some time engendering a quiet jostling for leadership within the LDP. Among the early favourites were .Kishida with acquiescence from Abe but the former fell from the latter's grace on some policy difference, while Ishiba, being a strong voice against Abe was perceived as the front runner in public opinion with more than 50 percent popularity. Suga, although enjoyed a much higher visibility and familiarity, thanks to his twice-daily as well as emergency time media briefings being the chief government spokesperson in his capacity as the Chief Cabinet secretary, was actually trailing way behind the other two contenders by a merely three percentage rating.

Sometime in June this year, while responding to a journalist's question during a presser as to who was likely to succeed him once he  decided to step down, Abe speculated that Suga was one of the hopefuls, providing  a heads up  for the latter's ambition. Following the official announcement of Abe's resignation, Suga started reaching out to the real power brokers within the party and was able to clinch the most crucial support of the Party Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai, who heads the largest faction in the LDP. With Nikai's and Aso's support, it was all but a formality for Suga to secure the party leadership, resulting in all other factions putting their weight behind him in the hope of obtaining cabinet or policy positions in the new administration.

It is pertinent to mention here that the LDP, the largest political party in the country, which has been ruling the country since its inception in1955, with a hiatus of four years in between, is an interesting mix of several factions within the Party, and the Head of each of the factions wield almost a total obedience and loyalty from the faction members. They are literally parties within a party- akin to a garlic, holding together but with distinct entities of their own. .Suga does not belong to any faction; however, with the support of .Nikai, leader of the largest faction and that of .Aso, leader of the second largest faction, did successfully negotiate his rise to the top slot of the Party. Since then .Suga witnessed a meteoric rise in his rating touching almost 70% in the party while his support among the public also kept on rising.

In Japan, 60% of the members of parliament are hereditary politicians with long family lineage. It is, therefore, considerably tough for an outsider to make a cut in the politics. Suga's rise to the highest political office in the country, being an outsider with a humble background, not only sets a unique precedent but also perhaps adds fresh air to the deeply entrenched political norms and tradition in the country.

Now the question is, why .Suga, a rather uncharismatic politician viewed more as a shadow of. Abe than for his own personal standing, was chosen over the other bigwigs?

In the author’s opinion several factors were working in this regard. For starters, his election was seen, contrary to observations of his detractors, largely as an endorsement to. Abe's rule for nearly eight years. Having been the closest and most loyal and trusted supporter as well as the right hand man of Abe, Suga guarantees a continuity of his former boss' policy initiatives. He, being an outsider and not belonging to any faction to back him, is likely to be easier to deal with by the major faction leaders. And, should he deviate, they can easily pull the rug from under his feet. .Nikai's extending support to Suga, has also not come without strings attached- he too might be positioning himself for a future leadership role. Following his election as the LDP leader, virtually ensuring his assumption of the office of prime minister. Suga said "we need to inherit and facilitate policies promoted by Prime Minister Abe in order for us to overcome this crisis and for each and every individual to have a safe and stable life". "I recognise that I carry that mission", he added.

In his new cabinet after being elected Prime Minister on September16, 2020, Suga has retained 15 out of 20 members from Abe's Cabinet, demonstrating his intention for continuity as well as rewarding all those who supported him. The only significant fresh induction in the new cabinet is Nobuo Kishi, younger brother of Abe, giving him the defence portfolio.

Notwithstanding a rather smooth leadership take over, Suga's term in office, one year to be precise, i,e, the remainder period of Abe's tenure, is likely to face formidable  challenges both domestically and internationally. Once the honeymoon period is over, which most likely will be a shorter one, Suga will have to deploy his political deal making skill as well as use his insider connection with the complex Japanese bureaucracy to make an impact. First and foremost, he will have to grapple with the ongoing coronavirus situation and show some success in its containment if not totally eradicate its spread. The economy of Japan, which is the third largest in the world, has been showing signs of strain during the last year of Abe, and was further compounded by the pandemic in spite of massive fiscal stimulus. Nation's focus will now fall squarely on the new prime minister and how quickly he tackle the situation and  pulls the economy up from its present morass. .On the external front, Suga inherits considerable challenges, which are far more complex and largely an uncharted domain for him. As the Chief Cabinet Secretary, he was more involved with domestic issues, while Abe led the foreign policy from the front, establishing personal rapport with the world leaders- a pair of shoes which Suga may find rather too large to fit in.

Presently, the world is passing through a volatile situation and there are potential pockets of tension, the South China Sea and the Korean peninsula for example, which might erupt into an open confrontation between the regional as well as the world powers. Abe drew Japan closer to the US, forging his early close friendship with President Donald Trump and formed  a strategic alliance named "Quad" along with the US, India and Australia with a view to contain China. Nevertheless, he deftly maintained a balance in his regional policy without provoking China and steering free from Trump's evermore belligerency against China. It will be a test of leadership for Suga how he deals with an assertive China and sustains the same level of camaraderie with Trump.

Following Suga's elevation, China expressed guarded optimism about their bilateral relations. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman commented that "China stands ready to work with Japan's newly elected party and government leader to continue to stay committed to the principles set out in the four political documents between the two countries, deepen cooperation on fighting the COVID-19 pandemic as well as promoting economic and social development, and to push forward the continuous improvement of bilateral ties". There were however, some expression of concern on the induction of Nobuo Kishi, a close friend of President of Taiwan Tsai Ing-wen, as defence minister of Japan.

The US is currently in the throes of perhaps the most contentious presidential election in its history, fraught with the risks of a tumultuous outcome. How the events unfold in the days leading to the election on Nov 3, 2020 and its aftermath is anybody's guess. But it can safely be assumed that regardless of who occupies the Oval office, the world is likely to witness a significant paradigm shift in the existing frame of the world order. Suga will have to prepare himself to adjust to the demand of the new world order while keeping his nation's interest at the top. Japan is likely to face a fresh general election in September next year unless there is a force majeure in between. Whether Suga will be able to cross that bridge and be at all able to lead his party to that point will depend on his success to manoeuvre within the party on the one hand and manage a balanced foreign policy on the other. The next one year, therefore, will practically be a litmus test for his leadership.

As far as Bangladesh is concerned no major changes are expected in the coming days. The foundation of Japan- Bangladesh relationship was laid by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman by his visit to Japan in 1973 and the fundamentals of our two countries' cooperation as charted out then have not only remained unchanged but also strengthened further over the decades. In fact, . Abe during his years in office has elevated our bilateral cooperation to an unprecedented height. Following the general election in Bangladesh in 2014, which was viewed by the US and the EU countries as less than free and fair, . Abe made an official visit to Bangladesh in the month of September of that year accompanied by a 200 strong business delegation providing a strong stamp of legitimacy to the government of Sheikh Hasina. He also made an announcement of the largest amount of Japanese ODA to Bangladesh worth US$ 6 Billion during that visit. It didn't take much long for the other parties critical of the credibility of the said elections to follow his lead. Last month, Japan signed another ODA agreement with Bangladesh amounting US$ 3.3 Billion.

Japan is a major development partner of Bangladesh.  Japanese ODA are vital to our national development program and the country will continue to provide their support to Bangladesh's strive towards attaining development and prosperity without interruption. Given the nature and dynamics of our bilateral relations with Japan, it will be highly advisable to make the earliest attempts at establishing a closer rapport and understanding with the new Japanese leader. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has already sent a warm message of congratulation to Prime Minister Suga. In her message to Prime Minister Suga, while conveying her deep gratitude for the continued support of Japan, Hasina mentioned that she expects the same level of cooperation to continue under the new PM's "able stewardship".

It is happy coincidence that our incumbent foreign secretary Masud Bin Momen has been Bangladesh's Ambassador to Japan not very long ago, and he is fully conversant and sensitive to the significance of Bangladesh -Japan relationship. It is believed he will add fresh dynamism and further substance to elevate our bilateral relationship with Japan during his tenure.

The Writer is Former Bangladesh Ambassador to Japan.

  • Japan - Bangladesh Relation
  • Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga
  • Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe

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