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Battered by series of setbacks, PM Suga is humble in policy speech

By Hironori Takechi

 

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s policy speech on Jan. 18, during the state of emergency covering 11 prefectures, reflected the impact of COVID-19. There is no end in sight to the decline in the Cabinet’s approval rating, and dark clouds are hanging over the administration. With the next lower house election coming up in the fall, the prime minister is facing a critical moment.

 

“I am very sorry,” the prime minister said in the early part of his policy speech. With the spread of COVID-19, the prime minister has no choice but to once again ask the people to lead “lives with restrictions” by refraining from nonessential outings. This is in stark contrast to his October 2020 policy speech in which from the very beginning he called for “balancing measures against COVID-19 and the economy” and confidently stated that “I will absolutely prevent explosive growth of infection.”

 

Prime Minister Suga experienced the success of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s long term administration supported by the Abenomics economic policy. The prime minister still focuses on the economy as his basic policy stance. He has drawn up a scenario to curb the spread of COVID-19 and to promote the “Go To Travel” program to stimulate demand for travel, thereby reviving the economy. This has led to a vicious cycle of his adoption of measures, criticism of the measures, and his adopting new measures in response. For example, PM Suga, confronted by the further spread of COVID-19, suspended the Go To program, which was criticized as “too late.”   

 

In his policy speech that day, the prime minister emphasized that “we are taking thorough measures to effectively target problems,” but there is no prospect of containing the infection. Now questions are being raised about his ability to manage crises, for which he had established a reputation when he was chief cabinet secretary. In a poll conducted by the Mainichi Shimbun and the Social Survey Research Center on Jan.16, the number of respondents who “do not approve” of the Suga administration’s measures against COVID-19 rose to 66%. The approval rating of the Cabinet, which was 64% when the government was formed in September 2020, has dropped to 33%.

 

In his speech, the prime minister said, “It is extremely important to prevent infection while eating and drinking.” However, according to the poll, 80% of respondents said that “people don’t take seriously the prime minister’s message or the declaration of a state of emergency.” Under the circumstances, the prime minister had no choice but to demonstrate humility to gain the “cooperation of the people once again.”

 

In his campaign speech delivered during the LDP presidential election in 2020, the prime minister stressed that he was aiming for a society “where people value the importance of self-help and do things by themselves first.” However, with the spread of the COVID-19 infection, calls for support have been increasing. As a result, in his policy speech at the Diet he called for “a society where people support and help one another.” It seems that “the government is being swayed by public opinion,” a source connected to the government said.

 

The prime minister, who is trying to make up for lost ground, has high hopes for vaccines. Initially, it was expected that vaccination would start in March at the earliest, but in his speech, the prime minister said, “I will try as much as possible to prepare the way for vaccination to start by the end of February.” However, it remains to be seen whether the state of emergency declaration, which expires on Feb. 7, can be lifted completely. Even if vaccination starts, “It is uncertain how many people will get a vaccine,” said a Cabinet minister. The prime minister will face an even more difficult situation if he can’t demonstrate a path to bringing the infectious disease under control.

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