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Ruling party members dismayed by Japan PM's lack of leadership amid COVID-19 crisis

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga (Mainichi/Kan Takeuchi)

TOKYO -- In addition to anxiety over plummeting approval ratings of the administration of Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in a Dec. 12 public opinion poll carried out by the Mainichi Shimbun, government and ruling coalition officials have begun to express dissatisfaction with the prime minister's lack of leadership.

    Three months have passed since the Suga Cabinet was launched, and the Cabinet's approval rate has gone from 64% in mid-September to 57% in early November and 40% in the latest nationwide poll conducted by the Mainichi Shimbun. The administration's tumbling approval ratings have also been striking in polls that various other news outlets have conducted this month. "We can't call it a crisis yet since there are more supporters of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) than there are people who support no political parties, but it's still a blow to the Cabinet," a senior LDP official said.

    The prime minister intends to maintain economic activity while tamping down on novel coronavirus infections, and has repeatedly said that he will continue with the "Go To Travel" subsidy campaign to boost domestic travel, an initiative that he has spearheaded. However, there is strong public criticism of the travel subsidy campaign as seen in the latest poll, in which nearly 70% of respondents said that they think it should be suspended.

    "Every day, the number of people infected with the virus is increasing, and we are running out of hospital beds, and yet the government won't implement any reasonable measures. How much longer is the government going to continue the Go To Travel campaign when people aren't even planning to visit family for the holidays?" a veteran LDP legislator said emphatically.

    Even an official within the government said, "We simply have to stop the Go To Travel campaign. It's ridiculous to tell people to travel at the same time as we're telling them not to come in contact with other people." A source close to the government sighed as they said, "The administration's image has deteriorated to a great degree. Going forward, we must be more cautious."

    The prime minister himself has started to become the target of criticism. A former Cabinet member said, "What it comes down to is the fact that Mr. Suga's manner of speaking is very unclear. He has to speak with more confidence, and give out stronger messages. Because he lacks that, the public becomes anxious and wonders, 'Are we all right with this person (in power)?'"

    A mid-ranking LDP member made his anger clear when he said, "The prime minister has to be more sensitive to the reactions of the public. The prime minister is the one who ties together the government, including the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, which oversees medical care. When we are facing insufficient numbers of hospital beds, he can't be talking about self-help. We see no leadership in the prime minister."

    The aforementioned veteran LDP lawmaker touched upon Suga's live appearance on the online streaming site NicoNico on Dec. 11, in which the prime minister introduced himself as "Gasu," a humorous nickname that flipped his surname upside-down, and said, "He was smirking and that made it seem like he had no sense that there is an ongoing crisis."

    Another mid-ranking LDP member told the Mainichi Shimbun, "The prime minister should have dissolved the House of Representatives and held a snap general election when his approval ratings were high, right after he formed his Cabinet. If worse comes to worse, there might be an LDP leadership election before (Suga's term as party president ends in) September next year."

    "Mr. Suga is not in a faction, and doesn't have a strong base, so he faces an uphill battle," another veteran LDP lawmaker said. "His Cabinet is like a mosaic (of people from different factions), so he can't make bold decisions because he's worried about someone suddenly saying, 'I can no longer support you.'"

    Many in the government and ruling parties said that there was no choice but to stop the Go To Travel campaign, but, as another former Cabinet member complained, "Everyone's too scared to say anything lest they incur the enmity of top government officials and party leadership, since the House of Representatives election is coming up. This demonstrates the worst of the single-seat constituency system."

    (Japanese original by Noriaki Kinoshita and Hironori Takechi, Political News Department)

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