He had been appearing morning and evening before the press for six years, but few people recognized him on the street. Until April of last year, when Yoshihide Suga, spokesman minister and head of the Cabinet of the Government of Japan, announced very seriously, showing a picture with an ideogram that read “reiwa”(Harmony), the name of the new era by which the mandate of the new emperor would be known. From then on, the right hand Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would become famous in the country's homes as Reiwa Ojisan ("Uncle Reiwa”). Now he will be, after Abe's resignation, the new leader of the Executive in Tokyo, a position in which few would have placed him a year and a half ago.
Suga, 71, and Abe's faithful right hand during the seven years and eight months of the outgoing leader's term, has been appointed to the head of the Liberal Democratic Party (PLD) with the support of 377 of the 535 representatives of the party (394 deputies and 141 provincial delegates) participating in the party vote, held in a Tokyo hotel. His rivals, former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba and former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, won 68 and 89 votes, respectively. The comfortable triumph of the new leader was already taken for granted since the main factions of the party had expressed their support, in a bid for continuity. In the hours leading up to the selection, the Japanese television network NHK anticipated that Suga would achieve a 70% support among the party representatives.
With no ties to any of the major factions of the PLD, Uncle Reiwa — a small, neat man with a side parting and slightly protruding ears — is above all a compromise candidate. Under normal circumstances, it is difficult to think that the factions that control the PLD would have chosen this discreet and disciplined manager, who unlike the majority of the Japanese political class does not come from any of the country's traditional lines.
Of course, the circumstances of this year of pandemic, economic recession, postponement of the Tokyo Olympics and after Abe's resignation for health reasons, are anything but normal. And Suga, as chief of staff – a position that combines the functions of spokesman, adviser and minister to the Presidency – of the outgoing leader, is a guarantee of continuity. The big question is whether, once invested, he will limit himself to continuing the application of the policies of his predecessor and protector, or will he choose to gradually introduce his own measures or style. During his electoral campaign he has ensured that he will maintain the course that the Government has followed so far.
In temperament or in history, both are night and day. Where Abe is charismatic and visionary, the technocrat Suga is low-key and meticulous. The outgoing leader is the son and grandson of ministers, raised among Tokyo's elites and accustomed from birth to dealing with foreign leaders; the entree comes from a modest family of farmers in Akinomiya, in the cold north of the country, and began his working life manufacturing cardboard boxes. He paid for his law studies working in a market and as a boy for everything in a newspaper, before entering politics as a secretary to a councilor in Yokohama, the city where he has developed most of his career as a deputy. His international experience is minimal; his leadership skills have not been put to the test.
A loyal successor
But few know better the ins and outs of the government or Abe's thinking. During the term of the hitherto prime minister, Suga has been loyally by his side, communicating his message, impassive in moments of scandals or resignations of ministers. When Abe's first government fell in 2007, Suga – then his communications minister – urged him not to give up and promised to bring him back to power.
They made it. Five years later, and after a stage in which he was considered an irrelevant figure from the past, Abe was returning to the Kantei, the prime minister's office. That the outgoing head of government has become the longest-serving in contemporary Japanese history, after years of fleeting leaders, is largely due to the behind-the-scenes work of his right-hand man. He is a perfect connoisseur of how to obtain the collaboration of officials and has excellent contacts in the media, where he is feared as much as he is respected. As chief of staff, his bureaucratic appointments have helped Abe to focus decision-making in the prime minister's office, to the detriment of other ministries or the Diet itself – the Japanese Parliament -, making him the most powerful leader of the latter. decades in this country.
His colossal work capacity is legendary: at age 38 he won his first election, Yokohama city councilor, after spending six pairs of shoes visiting 30,000 homes one by one. A voracious reader, he begins each day with reading the main newspapers and a hundred squats. Hold two daily press conferences. In order to meet as many people as possible, it is not uncommon for this frugal and abstemious politician to attend two dinners in the same day, perhaps after having participated in a breakfast and a business lunch. Conclude the day with another hundred squats. Married to Mariko, 66, and father of three children, his great hobby is fishing.
Although initially his candidacy had not aroused great enthusiasm – only 14% of citizens supported him – his popularity has been on the rise in recent weeks. "He is a man with whom many Japanese can identify, for his work ethic, his humble roots and his rise little by little until he reached the head of the Government," says Professor Stephen Nagy, of the International Christian University in Tokyo .
And Suga is not, recalls the expert, “no political nobody. His work hand in hand with Abe for almost eight years, his deep experience in the internal negotiations of the PLD and the bureaucracy means that a seasoned political operator with much of Abe's vision will be prime minister for at least a year. This implies stability, sustainability and continuity of the policy on the internal and international fronts ”.