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Editorial: Japan PM Suga's self-interest politics amid national crisis sealed downfall

A monitor broadcasting the news that Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has announced he will not run in the Liberal Democratic Party presidential election is seen at JR Osaka Station on Sept. 3, 2021. (Mainichi/Daiki Takikawa)

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has indicated he will not run in the upcoming Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) presidential election. His term as party president expires at the end of the month, meaning he has effectively announced his resignation.

    The sudden resignation came after the Suga administration faced a deadlock in managing the government amid a continuous decline in Cabinet approval ratings ahead of a House of Representatives election in the autumn.

    Suga faced widespread criticism for a slow coronavirus response and a self-righteous attitude that avoided direct engagement with people's anxiety and dissatisfaction.

    A tough contest was expected for Suga at the presidential election set to be declared on Sept. 17. To find a way out of his present dilemma, Suga had planned to replace LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai at the start of next week. But the plans were blocked by internal party opposition and other factors.

    At one time, the prime minister was considering using personnel changes as leverage to dissolve the lower house and even postpone the presidential election.

    The prime minister's self-interested stance, in which he went as far as repeating such foul moves to extend his political lifespan, incited strong opposition within the party.

    Initially, Suga's intended strategy was to elevate the administration's standing by holding the Tokyo Olympics, then dissolve the lower house, win the subsequent general election, and secure re-election in the party presidential race.

    But the Olympics, feted as "proof of humanity's victory over the coronavirus," were forced to go ahead without spectators due to an unrelenting spread of cases. On top of this, a "fifth wave" of infections began in late July. It has flung the health service into a crisis.

    In an opinion poll last month by the Mainichi Shimbun, while many praised the staging of the Olympic Games, approval of the Suga Cabinet fell to a record low of 26%.

    The defining moment of Suga's decline in power was the loss of a candidate he had backed in last month's Yokohama mayoral election. The LDP-backed candidate, Hachiro Okonogi, former chairman of the National Public Safety Commission, is a close ally to the prime minister.

    A series of losses in regional elections and three national elections in April led to a strong view within the party that it could not fight the lower house election with Prime Minister Suga at its helm.

    In September 2020, immediately after Suga assumed office, his image as a self-made man and son of an Akita farmer was viewed positively. Cabinet approval ratings exceeded 60%. But repeated failures in handling the most pressing issue of all, the coronavirus pandemic, led public opinion to desert him.

    Symbolic of these failures was the decision to go ahead with the domestic tourism-promoting "Go To Travel" campaign in autumn 2020, despite there being no end to infections on the horizon. The government's stance of going all in with a resumption of economic activity was heavily criticized, and infections actually did spread.

    The vaccine rollout, emphasized as the government's "trump card" against the pandemic, has also failed to progress as expected. The situation has incited dissatisfaction among the public.

    It can't be denied that the government's proposed measures to strengthen the health service have been rather hollow, and there have been cases in which people who have been unable to secure places in hospitals have died at home.

    Despite this, Suga said at a news conference at the end of August, "We have clearly begun to see the light (toward an end to infections)." His comment revealed how divorced his conceptions are from those of the public, who are forced to bear the brunt of the pandemic.

    Over the past year, the prime minister's position of disregard for providing explanations has come under continual scrutiny.

    He did not directly answer questions put to him at the Diet or during press conferences, and he was notable for flatly reading out prepared scripts. He did not respond to calls for an extraordinary Diet session sought on constitutional grounds by opposition parties to discuss coronavirus countermeasures. His disregard for the Diet is an approach that remains unchanged from the previous administration of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

    Precisely because this is a time of crisis, the country seeks a leader who can convince the public and call on them for cooperation. But this prime minister has not earnestly engaged with the people. At a news conference on Sept. 3, Suga merely said, "I cannot balance coronavirus measures with the (presidential) election campaign. I will dedicate myself to preventing infections from spreading." He then left without accepting further questions.

    His authoritarian methods have also invited opposition. The prime minister is still yet to explain his reasons for not appointing six proposed candidates for the Science Council of Japan.

    Since his tenure as chief Cabinet secretary under the Abe administration, Suga has continued to exercise his authority over personnel appointments to maintain a hold on government ministries.

    That the prime minister was until the end exploiting his power over personnel issues to move events without concern for outward appearances exposes fully the essence of Suga's politics, and its limits.

    The day-to-day management of the Suga administration has been significantly removed from the slogans touted at the time he came to office, which included "common sense politics" and "a Cabinet working for the people." The prime minister bears a heavy responsibility for tarnishing public trust in politics.

    A political vacuum during the coronavirus crisis cannot be tolerated. The LDP must quickly have its presidential election. What will be sought at that time is reflection and review of the Suga administration, which acted as inheritor of the preceding Abe administration.

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