Three moments that put Japan PM Suga on road to resignation

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has decided not to run in the LDP’s presidential election, citing the need to focus on combatting the COVID-19 pandemic.

NAOYA YOSHINO, Nikkei political editor | Japan

TOKYO — Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga will not run for the presidency of the Liberal Democratic Party and will step down as the prime minister of Japan, less than a year after taking office on Sept. 16, 2020. Looking back, there were three crucial moments that sealed Suga’s political fate.

The first was his decision to forgo a quick general election. Immediately after taking office, Suga’s cabinet had a 74% approval rating, the third-highest ever for a new cabinet. His cabinet still enjoyed nearly 60% approval as of last November. If Suga had called an election by that point, there is a good chance that the LDP would have kept its sole majority in the Diet, Japan’s parliament, judging by historical approval ratings and electoral results.

In 2008, then-Prime Minister Taro Aso hesitated to dissolve the lower house immediately upon taking office. He lost power to the opposition Democratic Party of Japan in a general election the following year. Suga was then the deputy chairman of the LDP’s election strategy headquarters, which gave him a front-row seat at those events. He appears not to have learned from Aso’s mistake.

The idea of dissolving the lower house in mid-September last year met with resistance in the ruling party, and the Suga government did not have the strength to overcome it. Both LDP lawmakers and the public hold governments that have won a lower house election in higher esteem than those that have not. A government that has a popular mandate can more easily make its own decisions on reshuffling party executives.

The political situation would have been fundamentally different if the lower house had been dissolved in the fall of 2020, when there were far fewer COVID-19 cases than now. A new four-year term would be underway in the lower house. Instead, the LDP is worried about its prospects for the upcoming general election.

The second crucial moment came with the government’s stuttering measures to fight the pandemic. Vaccinations got off to a slow start. The government tried to make up for lost time by setting up large vaccination sites with the help of the Self-Defense Forces and workplace inoculations, but the workplace vaccination drive stalled.

As the months dragged on, concerns about the government’s coronavirus response deepened. And just as those worries reached new heights, the number of new infections started rising sharply. No sooner had the previous state of emergency ended than the government had issue a fourth one for Tokyo on July 12.

Hopes that public sentiment would be buoyed by the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games proved vain. The cabinet’s public approval rate had been expected to rise after the Olympics, but it did not because many people were strongly opposed to holding the Games in the middle of a pandemic.

The third critical moment was the Yokohama mayoral election on Aug. 22. Hachiro Okonogi, a Suga ally and former chairman of the National Public Safety Commission, was defeated despite backing from the LDP. Suga’s influence waned dramatically after he lost on his home turf, and the perception grew within the party that Suga could not be the face of the LDP in the next lower house election. His involvement in the Yokohama election ended up backfiring.

The LDP will elect a new president on Sept. 29. It has become clear that the government’s siloed administrative system and slowness to go digital are interfering with the implementation of policies to address the pandemic. This has also highlighted issues over Japan’s governance, such as the relationship between the national and local governments. Simply changing the head of the LDP will not resolve these problems.

Japan also faces diplomatic and security challenges, with East Asia growing more tense because of the confrontation between the U.S. and China. The LDP presidential election must face this reality; Suga’s would-be successors must not be afraid to lay out a bold course for Japan.

Naoya Yoshino is the Tokyo-based head of Nikkei’s political news group. As a political reporter, he has interviewed 14 Japanese prime ministers, from Morihiro Hosokawa to Yoshihide Suga, and covered the finance and economy ministries. He worked as a Washington correspondent from 2012 to 2017, reporting on the 2012 and 2016 U.S. presidential elections.

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