Japanese and international media have tended to be condescending toward the newly elected Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga because his rise to the top executive post did not follow a national election, but rather as a result of internal party compromises. But history shows figures like Suga can become effective and powerful leaders.
The Japanese people are not the only ones who are pinning their hopes on Suga in the prolonged fight against the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic stagnation it has caused. The whole world, including 10-member ASEAN, hopes to see Suga guide Japan out of the health and economic crises, as Japan’s recovery will help the ailing global economy to regain its feet.
The new prime minister is little known at the international level, because as the right-hand man of former prime minister Shinzo Abe, Suga devoted his time and energy to domestic affairs. However, Suga, as the lead government spokesperson, often talked about major diplomatic issues, especially China, South and North Korea, as well as Japan’s unpredictable ties with the United States under President Donald Trump.
Suga has an unusual background compared with many of his predecessors, including his immediate predecessor Abe. The 71-year old Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) politician is among only a few of Japan’s political elite to come from a rural family. Suga is also an independent member of the LDP, belonging to no party faction. Suga is a self-made man, and loyal to Abe.
In securing the PM position, Suga won 314 votes in the 465-member House of Representatives and 142 of the 245-member House of Councilors.
Known as a fixer and a troubleshooter, Suga is admired as a master of getting things done. But many say he lacks vision, compared with Abe, who Suga served for eight years as chief Cabinet secretary.
As the world’s third-largest economy after the US and China, Japan plays a very strategic role especially as the engine of economic growth of countries in Southeast Asia, either as a major lender or source of foreign direct investment.
Now Japan is needed to counterbalance the might of China, both in economic and diplomatic terms, a role that has traditionally belonged to the US. While the US under President Trump is championing an “America first” policy, at the expense of Asia among other regions, Japan is preoccupied by its dispute with neighboring China, South and North Korea.
Suga is expected to continue the policies of Abe. So, what can Indonesia and President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo expect from the new Japanese leader?
No major changes are likely to happen in Indonesia-Japan relations now that Suga has assumed power. In fact, whoever replaced Abe, Japan would still consider Indonesia a strategic partner especially in the economic field, given the more than 1,600 Japanese companies that are now operating in Indonesia. The Southeast Asian country is one of Japan’s largest markets and a major supplier of natural resources.
Suga will at least continue the current policies, though no more than his predecessor did. Major changes will only happen if he wins the real battle in September next year.