TOKYO – Less than a year after being appointed Prime Minister of Japan, Yoshihide Suga said on Friday that he would not seek re-election as chairman of the ruling party and noted the prospect of a return to the revolving door leadership that once shaped Japan’s top office the third largest economy in the world.
72-year-old Suga took over the post of prime minister after Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, resigned on health grounds in August 2020. But Japan’s struggles with coronavirus have made Suga deeply unpopular, and his decision on Friday makes him a rare leader in a large, developed country who is stepping down in large part because of the pandemic.
As the son of a strawberry farmer and a teacher from the rural north of the country, Suga worked behind the scenes of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which dominated Japanese politics for decades. A deeply uncharismatic leader who struggled to communicate with the public, he often appeared uncomfortable as a public leader.
In the end – with coronavirus cases at record highs, hospitals turning away patients, and a vaccination campaign still trying to catch up with other rich countries – he apparently decided he had no viable path to remain prime minister.
The winner of a race for party leadership starting on September 17th will most likely be named prime minister by the Japanese parliament and then lead the party to the general election, due to take place by the end of next month.
Suga’s untimely departure threatens to plunge Japan back into the instability of leadership that marked the period before Abes almost eight consecutive years in power. During that time, the country has set up six prime ministers in six years, including an earlier term from Abe himself.
With the same party almost certain to stay in power, Japan’s policies on the economy, trade, international relations and other matters are unlikely to change. But the uncertain leadership casts doubt on Tokyo’s ability to deliver on its promises.
At a hastily convened press conference Friday afternoon, Suga said he wanted to focus on managing the pandemic rather than running a re-election campaign. As the party leadership drew nearer, he said, “I realized that I need tremendous energy.”
“I can’t do both,” he said. “I have to choose one.”
In the days leading up to his surprise announcement, Suga appeared to be trying to save his leadership. When a rival, former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, announced last month that he was running for party leadership, rumors circulated that Suga could dissolve parliament ahead of schedule and call general elections to keep his position. He had also suggested reshuffling his cabinet and other leadership positions within the party.
The race to replace Suga as party chairman will culminate in a vote on September 29th and so far appears to be relatively open.
Kishida was the only declared candidate this week, although former communications minister Sanae Takaichi – one of the few women in Abe’s cabinet – has expressed an interest. Hours after Suga made his announcement, Taro Kono, a more liberal iconoclast who served as foreign and defense minister and recently led the vaccine rollout, said he was conferring with allies on whether to run.
The Liberal Democrats have held power in Japan for most of the postwar period, and the political opposition has been in disarray over the past decade after being held responsible for a failed response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
While the Liberal Democrats are an overwhelming favorite to stay in power, they may still be looking for a strategic advantage by installing a new prime minister in the weeks leading up to the general election.
The opposition “will have a harder time going up against someone who may be enjoying their honeymoon and looking new and fresh and making promising change that makes people a little more optimistic,” said Tobias Harris, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington and specialist in Japanese politics.
While Japan has historically been plagued by revolving door tours that hampered efforts to address solid economic and demographic problems, Suga’s increasingly desperate attempt to keep his job has been without precedent, analysts said.
“I can’t remember that level of confusion,” says Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at Sophia University in Tokyo. “I think he was really struggling and feeling isolated and his desperate attempts to cling to power failed one by one.”
In many ways, Suga’s rapid rise and fall could be attributed to timing. When Abe resigned, party leaders decided they didn’t want a grueling leadership contest and quickly sided with Suga, a power broker and chief spokesman for Abe who was considered malleable and ready to continue his predecessor’s policies.
Although Kishida ran for leadership in the elections last fall, the party anointed Suga in what was largely viewed as a stamp vote.
But public frustration over Suga grew as Japan, which weathered the 2020 pandemic quite well, took months to ramp up its vaccination program and tired of the population with ongoing economic restraints. Concerns that the government was pushing the Olympics as cases increased in Tokyo and surrounding prefectures also hurt Suga’s credibility.
By the beginning of last month, Suga’s approval ratings, which were above 60% at the beginning of the year, had fallen to below 30%.
With his difficulty in communicating with the public, Suga was to blame for the wider failings of the Japanese bureaucracy holding vaccinations with domestic clinical testing requirements and restrictions on who could give the vaccines.
“His communication with the public has not been very effective,” said Sheila A. Smith, Senior Fellow on Japanese Studies with the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
Suga also embodies a larger, more profound challenge for the Japanese government, Smith said.
“When you have a crisis, you need an adaptable response that breaks the rules, gets things done, and that’s a little harder for Japan,” she said.
Perhaps most critically, Suga, who once had the support of party leaders in their factional system of government – including Abe, who still wields influence behind the scenes – appeared to have lost his supporters.
The current term of office of the House of Representatives is due to expire next month, which would oblige the party to call parliamentary elections by October 21 at the latest. However, the new chairman could dissolve parliament before the end of the term, which would allow a general election to be postponed to the end of November.
Despite widespread dissatisfaction with the government’s response to the pandemic, political analysts say it will be difficult for any opposition party to oust the Liberal Democrats.
“I’m sure a lot of frustrated people really wanted to vote for another party or representative that might do better,” said Tsuneo Watanabe, Senior Fellow of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation in Tokyo. “But at the moment there is no strong alternative to the LDP, and that is a failure of the Japanese political system.”