© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga attends a press conference on Japan’s response to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak at his official headquarters in Tokyo, Japan on June 17, 2021. REUTERS / Issei Kato / Pool / File Photo
By Linda victory
TOKYO (Reuters) – Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, grappling with rising coronavirus cases and deeply unpopular Olympics, risks becoming the next in a long line of short-term leaders.
72-year-old Suga, longtime right-hand man of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has seen his support drop from around 70% when he last took office to just over 30% – traditionally seen as a danger line for Japanese leaders in September.
Suga took over after Abe quit nearly eight years in office, citing poor health and making him the longest-serving prime minister in Japan. Before that, Japan had six prime ministers in as many years, including Abe’s own difficult first one-year term.
Suga’s dream scenario was to contain the virus outbreak, run successful games and call parliamentary elections. This was turned on its head after a recent surge in COVID-19 infections resulted in a fourth state of emergency in Tokyo, forcing Olympic organizers to ban spectators from almost all venues.
“He doesn’t do a good job of party and politics, and nobody likes being in power,” said Steven Reed, professor emeritus at Chuo University. “All you need is an alternative.”
New infections in Tokyo rose to a nearly six-month high of 1,308 on Thursday, and medical experts have sounded the alarm. Japan’s mostly voluntary restrictions have failed to contain the movement of people who can spread contagion.
Efforts by Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura to get bars and restaurants to stop drinking alcohol as part of the anti-COVID-19 measures failed and caused a public outcry.
Nishimura, Suga’s top man in responding to a pandemic, was forced to apologize and withdraw requests to banks, pressure on establishments that failed to meet alcohol requirements and liquor wholesalers not to supply such restaurants.
Japan’s vaccination campaign was also initially slow and is now confronted with delivery bottlenecks, which intensifies dissatisfaction.
Japan did not suffer the explosive outbreaks elsewhere, but recorded nearly 830,000 COVID-19 cases and around 15,000 deaths. Only 31% of the public have had at least one shot.
FACE OF CHOICES
For Suga’s Liberal Democratic Party, his biggest mistake is his inability to win elections.
The LDP lost three parliamentary by-elections in April, and that month the party and its allies lacked a majority in the Tokyo assembly. The LDP won far fewer seats than expected in this vote as it serves as a guideline for national elections.
“The consensus among the LDP was that Suga would be prime minister until next spring if the LDP did not suffer significant losses (in the Tokyo elections),” said a senior bureaucrat with deep knowledge of the party.
Now “the people in the party are considering how to replace him,” said the bureaucrat on condition of anonymity.
No reigning LDP heavyweight has publicly called for Suga to be replaced.
Suga won the LDP leadership after all the major factions around him united. But he lacks a strong base of his own, and the party columns have deepened since he took office.
His term of office as LDP president expires in September, although there was talk of postponing the party election to the election of the powerful lower house of parliament. The federal election must take place by November.
Leaving a incumbent prime minister is difficult, and the lack of an obvious successor makes it more difficult. There is also no evidence that Japan’s powerful business lobbies are unhappy with Suga.
“If it was clear who would replace him, he would probably have more problems, but who will the party band together around?” said Tobias Harris, a senior fellow at the Washington-based think tank American Progress. A divided opposition and low voter turnout could also limit the LDP’s losses in the lower house vote.
“Is there any reason to believe that the turnout will be higher than the last election? How bad will the LDP’s losses be?” Said Harris. “That seems to be the ‘new normal’.”