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Japanese PM Yoshihide Suga
Japan's PM Yoshihide Suga inspects a healthcare facility in Tokyo amid continuing COVID worriesImage: The Yomiuri Shimbun/AP Photo/picture alliance

COVID, political scandals hit Suga's popularity

Julian Ryall Tokyo
January 1, 2021

Despite high hopes at the outset of his administration, Japan's prime minister has failed to get to grips with coronavirus and been accused of putting the economy over health of the nation.


When Yoshihide Suga took over as Japanese prime minister in September, there were high hopes of an injection of new vitality and fresh ideas in a government that had begun to look a little stale under his predecessor, Shinzo Abe.    

Finding a solution to the coronavirus pandemic at the same time as keeping the national economy afloat were the primary ambitions of the new government, Suga said after members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party selected him to essentially continue the policies that had seen Abe serve for almost eight years

But the fissures in his leadership have quickly become apparent. 

After recording a public support rate of an impressive 74% in late September, there has been a steady but uninterrupted slump in Suga's support. In the most recent poll, released on December 28, the prime minister had lost more than 30 points and his support rate stood at a mere 42%. 

Election looming

Analysts say it is increasingly likely that the party will fare badly in a general election that is being penciled in for the late autumn and that Suga will join a long list of Japanese prime ministers who have lasted just a year or so in office. And they add that returning to a revolving-door approach to leaders is the last thing that Japan needs at a time of heightened geopolitical tensions around the world, the lingering coronavirus crisis and the need to get the economy pumping once again.

Former Japanese PM Shinzo Abe
Former PM Abe was forced to apologize after it was revealed that political funds had illegally been used to subsidize parties for his supportersImage: Reuters/I. Kato

"I think there is unhappiness with his leadership from all sides and that means the LDP's prospects are not very good ahead of the election," said Yoichi Shimada, a professor of politics at Fukui Prefectural University. 

"Abe had virtually unanimous support from conservatives because of the positions he has taken on foreign policy, most notably in standing up to China and South Korea," he told DW. "Suga has brought in foreign policy advisers who could be described as appeasers towards China, and that has been deeply disappointing."

Suga is also at a disadvantage because while he was successful in building a career without belonging to one of the LDP's often fractious factions, he lacks a support base now that he is prime minister and is having to constantly cast around for allies, Shimada said. And political rivals who scent that weakness are already beginning to circle as they weigh up a leadership challenge of their own, he added. 

Arguably, Suga has been unfortunate in the timing of his takeover of the government as it has coincided with a number of political scandals. They may have occurred before he assumed the post of prime minister and one of them have touched Suga personally, but he has been close enough to a couple for a degree of the criticism to rub off. 

Katsuyuki Kawai, a former justice minister and a protege of Suga, has been charged with buying votes to assist his wife's campaign to win election to the Japanese parliament from Hiroshima Prefecture, while there has also been significant fallout from the resignation of former agriculture minister Takamori Yoshikawa for allegedly accepting several million yen in cash from an egg producing company. 

Caught up in scandals

Suga has also not been able to completely distance himself from the scandal that has engulfed Abe since he stepped down, with the former prime minister forced to apologize after it was revealed that political funds had illegally been used to subsidize parties for his supporters. Abe did, however, avoid criminal charges after prosecutors decided there was insufficient evidence against him and satisfied themselves instead with prosecuting one of his key aides. 

Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at the Tokyo campus of Temple University, says Suga is displaying little ability to turn his political fortunes around.

"He is an awful communicator and demonstrates zero empathy with people who are struggling, while he has also shown a stubborn tenacity in maintaining policies even when it has been made clear that they are detrimental to public safety," he said, singling out the "Go To Travel" and "Go To Eat" campaigns, which were designed to protect businesses but have been blamed by many for helping to spread the coronavirus.

"As a result, Suga has been imploding in the polls as the public is squarely pinning the blame for the third wave that Japan is experiencing on his shoulders," he said. And if the public no longer has faith in the way that his administration is handling the health crisis, they are unlikely to believe in his plans for a sharp economic recovery, Kingston said. 

Health over economy

"A lot of people believe that it is far more important at the moment to flatten the infection curve than to work on the economy or prioritize the Tokyo Olympic Games going ahead in the summer," he said. 

"Two-thirds of Japanese now say they are in favor of the Games being put back again or canceled entirely because the risk is not going to magically go away with a vaccine, but once again Suga is demonstrating his stubborn streak," Kingston added. 

Yet perhaps there is still hope for Suga remaining beyond the one-year threshold that seems to have tripped up so many of his predecessors. 

"I'm sure there is jockeying going on behind the scenes to be the next prime minister, but it's a poisoned chalice at the moment and who would really want it?" asked Kingston. "Suga is a convenient placeholder for now and I imagine he will hold on for a year, but his prospects in the next party leadership election are ebbing very quickly."

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