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Suga Cabinet adrift as record low approval ratings hang over autumn elections

Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato is seen during a press conference at the prime minister's office on July 19, 2021. (Mainichi/Kan Takeuchi)

TOKYO -- The Cabinet of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has received its worst ever approval ratings in news outlets' July opinion polls, and a sense of malaise is in the air as the Japanese government and ruling parties seem unable to find a way to regain public trust.

    The sudden approval rating drop is believed to stem from the Suga Cabinet's perceived ineptitude with coronavirus prevention and the vaccine rollout. Concern for this autumn's House of Representatives election is growing.

    "Our basic stance is not to be swayed by every change in circumstances. We will take these results seriously, and proceed with vaccinations as well as thoroughly employ other COVID-19 countermeasures," Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said about the support drop at a July 19 press conference.

    A July 17 poll by the Mainichi Shimbun and the Social Survey Research Center found the Suga Cabinet's approval rating down to 30% -- 4 percentage points below a previous June poll. It was a record low since the Cabinet's September 2020 establishment, and barely over the sub-30% "danger zone." News agency Jiji Press's poll logged an approval rating under 30%, and various media outlets reported record high disapproval ratings.

    A Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) senior official remained optimistic: "It's not as if the Cabinet approval rating decides the election. It will be fine if vaccinations progress." But many in the national government and ruling parties offered stern views. Particularly strong criticism was reserved for the government's miscalculation on vaccine supplies and their delayed distribution, despite the administration deeming vaccines its "trump card" against the coronavirus. "The government's sluggish response is the greatest problem," an LDP veteran said.

    There has also been strong public opposition to the government's requests that financial institutions and alcohol wholesalers pressure restaurants flouting orders to stop serving alcohol. The requests were withdrawn after criticism. A junior LDP member said, "I recognize an acute sense of anger among members of the public who feel the Suga administration has not been able to deal with the coronavirus."

    With the Tokyo Olympic Games about to start on July 23, some expressed hope in the games' success, including, "We can only hope Japanese athletes will win a lot of gold medals. We're completely dependent on other people." But there have been many skeptical voices, including a senior official at Komeito, the LDP's coalition partner, who said: "It's hard to see the Olympics directly leading to an approval rating rise."

    To ensure Prime Minister Suga's reelection as party president, senior administration officials aim to hold the LDP leadership contest after the lower house general election, but some have suggested having the party presidential election earlier. One junior LDP member said it should come before the lower house poll to "refresh public sentiment."

    But there is currently no replacement candidate who can earn a consensus among party members. An LDP affiliate showed concern, saying, "Even if we bring the leadership vote forward, it could have a negative impact on (our showing) in the lower house election. There's not much we can do."

    But opposition parties are encouraged, and see in the situation an opportunity to pressure the administration. Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan Secretary-General Tetsuro Fukuyama told reporters on July 19, "The government's coronavirus measures and forcing through of the Olympics is inciting anger and distrust among the public." He expressed his intention to hold the government and ruling parties to account regarding the Olympics and its COVID-19 response by demanding an extraordinary Diet session be convened early.

    (Japanese original by Noriaki Kinoshita, Shuhei Endo and Kenta Miyahara, Political News Department)

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