Suga steps down: Japanese politics in the pandemic era

Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga bows during speaking to media at the prime minister’s office in Tokyo on September 3, 2021. PM Suga decided not to run for the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) presidential election. PM Suga will resign prime minister as his term of office expires at the end of this month.   ( The Yomiuri Shimbun )

With Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announcing today that he will not seek reelection as leader of his party, COVID-19 has now dispatched two Japanese prime ministers in short order.

After presiding over the country’s longest administration in the postwar era, Shinzo Abe abruptly resigned one year ahead of schedule in August 2020. A new bout of illness motivated Abe to step down 13 years after health ended his short first premiership, but a bungled response to the pandemic bedeviled his administration and ultimately redefined his political legacy: modest economic expansion came to an abrupt halt due to a consumption tax increase and the pandemic lockdowns; Abe’s team fumbled the handling of the COVID-19 outbreak on the Diamond Princess cruise ship as well as the delivery of cash payouts to help the public cope with the economic emergency in the early stages of the pandemic; and important international convenings were postponed, namely the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games and a state visit from Chinese President Xi Jinping. The fabled top-down leadership of Abe’s administration was humbled by the virus.

When Abe bowed quickly out of office, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) bosses rallied around Suga, his right-hand man and chief cabinet secretary, to serve the remainder of Abe’s term and steward Japan’s coronavirus response. The public craved stability in uncertain times and upon his ascent to the prime minister’s office, Suga enjoyed a wave of popular support (74% approval at its height). The comedown has been abrupt, with support for Suga’s administration dwindling to around 30% in recent weeks, driven by profound disappointment with his handling of the pandemic. The decision to go forward with the Tokyo 2020 Olympics this summer despite deep public fears about hosting a potential super spreader event, extended and largely ineffective emergency restrictions (calling for reduced business hours and cancellation of unnecessary travel), and the slow rollout of the vaccination campaign (47% of the population is now fully vaccinated) sapped the public’s confidence. The rapid increase of COVID-19 cases fueled by the delta variant and the growing strain on hospitals which led them to turn away patients unnerved Japan’s residents.

As a man belonging to no particular faction in the ruling party, Prime Minister Suga’s fate largely rested on his ability to keep faith with the public. His botched response to the pandemic ended that lifeline. The party leadership and rank and file also lost confidence in Suga delivering on his ultimate responsibility as party president: winning elections. This year, the LDP suffered several defeats in regional elections, but none stung more than the mayoral race loss in Yokohama, Suga’s adopted political hometown. The stakes are of the highest order with an election for the next term’s LDP president at the end of this month and a general election later this fall.

And so the knives came out. It became evident that Suga would not walk into an uncontested party election, and the clash among political forces within the LDP intensified into a no-holds-barred competition. The rift between would-be “kingmakers,” the powerful LDP Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai and the Abe-Aso-Amari trifecta of two former prime ministers (Shinzo Abe and Taro Aso) and a former economic revitalization minister (Akira Amari), spilled into open view. The speed of developments on the ground has been stunning. Only three days ago, Suga floated the idea of calling for a general election in mid-September ahead of the LDP presidential race, only to quickly give up. He considered a reshuffle of senior party and cabinet positions for next week to give sails to his candidacy, only to abruptly announce his withdrawal from the race today. Suga’s weakness was now fully exposed as he could not exercise the prime minister’s prerogatives of deciding the timing of an election and making senior appointments.

COVID-19 has injected fluidity into Japanese politics. The LDP presidential race is becoming a crowded field as several party heavyweights are likely join the fray. The weeks ahead will be full of political maneuverings to see which candidate will prevail in the party contest and how much of a dent the opposition can make in the LDP’s sizable majority in the Diet. But the churn of Japanese politics opens more fundamental questions into Japan’s future: Can new LDP leadership restore the public’s trust in the government’s competence to overcome the pandemic and the ability of elected leaders to show empathy and responsiveness to the public’s concerns? Will the signature initiatives launched by Prime Minister Suga for digital and green energy transformation be orphaned or will they find new stewardship? And can Japan emerge from COVID-19 with the same stable leadership and proactive foreign policy that has contributed to the deepening of the alliance with the United States? Japan’s unpredictable political season this fall will have vast implications for both the country and the world.