Six months into its tenure, and the administration of Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has been dealt a harsh judgment indeed, one that he should accept with the gravity it deserves.
We speak of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)'s losses over the weekend in the first three elections for national office since Suga took office -- a rerun House of Councillors poll in Hiroshima Prefecture, and byelections for an upper house seat in Nagano Prefecture and the No. 2 single-seat House of Representatives constituency in Hokkaido.
It is very unusual for a ruling party to score not a single win in a trio of off-year elections. The blow in Hiroshima Prefecture, traditionally part of the LDP's bedrock conservative base, is especially severe. The seat there had been held by the party's Anri Kawai, who was earlier convicted of vote-buying. That prompted the rerun of the election that had got her into the upper house, and money in politics became a central theme of the campaign.
However, LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai called the scandal an "object lesson," and Prime Minister Suga did not provide open support for the party's candidate in Hiroshima. Put another way, though, the LDP made no apparent moves to wipe away the distrust in politics created by the vote-buying case.
But more than anything, the LDP's April 25 triple loss was the result of the Suga administration's conduct in government over the past half year.
First, there is the administration's coronavirus policy. The government response to the pandemic has repeatedly fallen behind events, and so we are now on our third state of emergency. When it comes to vaccines, the anti-infection "trump card," procuring them from overseas is a daily struggle, and there are as yet no prospects of the jabs reaching the public at large.
Then there was Suga's refusal to appoint six scholars among the nominees to the Science Council of Japan, which the prime minister has still not explained and which remains an open issue. The prime minister has taken a similarly obfuscatory attitude to revelations that his eldest son had been treating top communications ministry officials to dinners on behalf of his employer, a private broadcaster, with the senior Suga saying only that "my son is a separate person."
Prime Minister Suga has risen on the slogan "common sense politics," presenting himself as seeing policy from the citizens' perspective. However, the way he has run his government is a far cry from the thoughts and feelings of the Japanese people. What we have seen in the past six months is a prime minister who does not face his own citizens, tending instead to a political self-righteousness that shuns any public explanation that would reveal his ideas.
There is now less than half a year until the current lower house term ends, necessitating a general election. It is certainly possible that figures within the LDP will wonder more loudly if Suga is fit to fight that election.
However, Japan is now faced with whether it can prevent an imminent coronavirus case explosion. Now is not the time to dangle the possibility of a snap election or plot out schemes to keep the Suga government limping along come what may.
The prime minister's top priority must be to get the pandemic under control, and to address the anxiety and distrust felt by voters.