Asia

Japan's Suga risks joining a long list of short-term leaders

TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) – Losses in three special elections for parliamentary seats in a single day have left Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in search of a way to quickly boost support or risk joining a long list of short-serving premiers.

Support for Suga, who succeeded his long-time boss, Shinzo Abe, last year, has been dragged down by corruption scandals and a sluggish Covid-19 response. The triple loss in the weekend elections came on the same day a new virus emergency was imposed on about a quarter of the population, adding to Suga’s woes with the clock ticking for a general election that must be held within about six months.

The Liberal Democratic Party-led ruling coalition is unlikely to lose control of the government, given weak public support for opposition parties, meaning the current agenda of ultra-loose monetary policy and close ties with the US will probably remain. Suga, however, could be replaced as leader after only a year in office if he leads his party to a substantially reduced majority.

“It will be the election that decides what happens thereafter,” said Steven Reed, a professor emeritus of political science at Chuo University in Tokyo. The general election was most likely to come in September, before the LDP leadership election the same month, Reed said, adding that “Suga wants to go into the party leadership poll as the incumbent.”

There is little lined up that may improve Suga’s fortunes in the immediate future. The emergency declaration for Tokyo, Osaka and two prefectures could delay an economic recovery, with the government instructing bars and restaurants to stop serving alcohol, and seeking to ban fans from major sporting events.

Virus cases are at record highs in Osaka and infection numbers in Tokyo have risen to levels not seen since late January. Meanwhile, the vaccine roll-out has reached about 1 per cent of the population.

The world’s third-largest economy has inoculated a smaller percentage of its population than Myanmar, a country possibly on the brink of a civil war after the military staged a coup more than two months ago.

While the support rate for the government has steadied at around 40 per cent, Suga isn’t the public’s top pick to be the next prime minister. He ranked sixth at 4 per cent in a survey by the Nikkei newspaper, while Taro Kono, the minister Suga appointed to run the vaccine programme, is the top choice at 24 per cent.

The poll also showed that about 80 per cent of respondents didn’t think the vaccination programme was going well.

The vaccine roll-out is expected to pick up speed next month and the Defence Ministry said Tuesday Suga has ordered it and the Self-Defence Forces to help set up a large-scale vaccination centre in Tokyo by May 24 to help expedite the inoculation effort.

Suga’s plans to hold the Tokyo Olympics from July 23 are unpopular with the public and look set to fall far short of his hopes that they would prove that the world has defeated the coronavirus. Some fear the international sports spectacular could even become a super-spreader event, but cancelling the games less than three months before they are due to start would also be fraught with difficulty.

His pledge to focus on battling the pandemic means Suga looks set to delay the election until close to the end of the lower house term in October – a situation that has worked out poorly for previous premiers.

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While Japan has kept Covid-19 infections and deaths at much lower levels than in much of Europe and the US, it reached the grim milestone of 10,000 deaths Monday, public broadcaster NHK reported.

This compares unfavourably with neighbours like Taiwan, where only 12 have died, and Vietnam, with 35 deaths. The Nikkei survey found about two-thirds of respondents disapproved of the government’s handling of the pandemic.

The government is planning large vaccination centres in Tokyo and Osaka, broadcaster NTV said, to try to speed up a process that has been farmed out to approximately 1,700 local governments. An LDP group is also proposing that the shots be provided 24 hours a day, the Asahi newspaper reported Monday.

After the special election results, Suga told reporters he wanted to press ahead with the country’s immunisation programme.

“I will accept the verdict of the people with humility,” Suga told reporters Monday. “After analysing the situation in the regions, I will correct what needs to be corrected.”

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