Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga will face his first party leaders’ debate in Japan’s National Diet as head of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) on June 9. It will be the first such debate since 2019, when Shinzo Abe was in the PM’s office.
The clash will focus on issues including the government’s coronavirus response policy and whether to go ahead with this summer’s Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games. It is his responsibility to face the people’s doubts and worries sincerely, and not to be evasive in his answers.
In response to an opposition lawmaker’s question on holding the Tokyo Games, Suga told a June 7 House of Councillors audit committee meeting, “If the lives and health of the Japanese people cannot be protected, then of course we should not have the games.” However, when requested to reveal the standards the government was using to make the decision on going ahead with the event, Suga only said, “The lives and health of the Japanese people are an enormous prerequisite. That’s the standard I’d like to use.”
The Olympics gather people together from across the world, and that presents a transmission risk. What would the medical system and the state of infections in the country have to be to ensure the protection of lives and health? If the prime minister will not reveal the government’s benchmarks on this question, that is no different than not saying anything at all.
Shigeru Omi, who heads the government’s coronavirus countermeasures subcommittee, has long emphasized the need to reduce infection risks to the lowest possible level, and has indicated he will present a risk valuation for holding the Olympics as planned. However, Suga has not said how much weight he will give that valuation. We cannot help but conclude that the prime minister is acting on the assumption that the games will go ahead come what may.
On the ideals of the Olympics, the only thing Suga has said is that they are “a festival of peace. We will communicate the power of sports to the world.” Such an abstract definition will not convince the Japanese people.
The prime minister is in a frantic dash to expand coronavirus vaccinations. It appears he believes that the people’s Olympic concerns will be salved if the vaccination drive makes significant progress. But the people cannot have peace of mind if there are risks of a resurgence of infections and the medical system facing the danger of collapse.
The Diet party leaders’ debate is a moment for politicians to engage in argument on broad themes such as their core beliefs. Recent editions, however, have been criticized for losing their substance. When former Prime Minister Abe was quizzed on the Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Educational Institution cronyism scandals, he gave long-winded answers to what he had not even been asked about. In short, it was no debate.
When Yukio Edano, chief of the largest opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, stated that “the historical meaning of the leaders’ debate is dead,” Abe replied, “Its historical mission is over” — a remark clearly bereft of the gravity of the National Diet.
A foundation of democratic politics is for leaders to lend their ears to the voices of the people and to devote their words to explaining things to them. A leader like Suga who simply reads out the texts prepared for him by bureaucrats cannot earn the public’s trust.
In the leaders’ debate, the prime minister should not just dodge questions in the chamber, but answer in his own words.