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As his appeal wanes, can Suga be more than a caretaker prime minister?



When Yoshihide Suga became prime minister, following his predecessor Shinzo Abe’s abrupt departure in September 2020, he enjoyed an approval rating of 70%.


Almost a year later, his standing as prime minister is in serious jeopardy.


Things are certainly not going the way Suga had hoped. His Cabinet’s approval rating has slumped into the 30% range, which is considered to be precarious territory. Candidates endorsed by either Suga or the ruling Liberal Democratic Party have consistently lost in by-elections, including in a mayoral race in Yokohama, where the prime minister’s constituency is based. His gamble that euphoria from the Olympics would give him a political boost seems to have failed.


Suga, who is serving what remained of Abe’s term as LDP president, must now persuade people that he is still the best person to lead the party — and the country. The LDP will finalize the schedule for the leadership race Thursday — although officially beginning the contest on Sept. 17 and deciding the party leader on Sept. 29 appears to be the most likely outcome. And with the nation heading toward a general election scheduled to take place in the autumn, Suga’s political survival is on the line.


His determination to solidify his standing as someone who is not just a caretaker prime minister is facing a significant challenge, with prominent figures having already come forward to enter the leadership contest.


“There are no changes to my previous remark, which is that when the time comes I think it’s natural for me to run,” Suga said Aug. 17, reaffirming his pledge made in July that he would throw his hat into the ring.


But it was unusual for a sitting party president to declare his intention to stand in the leadership election that early. The move prompted speculation that, given the pressure he is under, Suga had moved pre-emptively to forestall opponents.


Indeed, he has reason to be worried, as ominous developments have been stacking up this year.


Primarily due to the public’s frustration with the government’s inability to contain the coronavirus pandemic, his Cabinet’s overall approval rating has more than halved. According to a TV Asahi poll released Monday, only 25.8% of respondents approved of the Cabinet’s performance. When he formed his Cabinet in September last year, it had the support of 62.3%.


For an LDP president, his charisma is judged to be mediocre at best, considering recent election outcomes. Including a default in a poll in Hokkaido, the LDP has lost all three by-elections leading up to this point. Gubernatorial and mayoral candidates that the party had either endorsed or nominated lost in seven contests.


And in a particularly damaging blow to Suga, even the prime minister’s allies have failed in their election bids. In Yokohama, former National Public Safety Commission chair Hachiro Okonogi lost in the city’s mayoral race on Sunday. Suga had appointed Okonogi to the Cabinet role and was close to him, as the prime minister used to serve as a secretary to Okonogi’s father, who was a lawmaker.


From earlier this year, the prime minister was confident that carrying out the Olympics successfully would encourage the public to throw its support behind his leadership. Public opposition to the event, though, was stubborn, and cases continued to rise rapidly even while the Games were underway. Judging by polling figures, Suga lost his bet.


The public has grown frustrated with the government based on the perception that politicians prioritized holding the Olympics above safeguarding public health, said Naoto Nonaka, a political science professor at Gakushuin University in Tokyo.


“The government made basic errors in its judgment on the coronavirus, which exacerbated the situation, as it wanted to proceed with the Olympics,” Nonaka said.


Additionally, Suga’s personal capabilities not only as the party chief but also as prime minister have been called into question.


Suga has long been known for his quiet, often expressionless demeanor — an impression that dates back to his days as chief Cabinet secretary, when he would strictly stick to the script provided by bureaucrats and fend off questions from the media. He rarely attempts to arouse emotion when trying to persuade the public about the merits of his policy objectives.


His performances at news conferences have also been criticized because he refuses to answer or skirts around even basic questions about the government’s COVID-19 response. The briefings are even ridiculed online as a television program that parents do not want to show to their children, on the basis that Suga would set a bad example.


During a news conference last week, a reporter questioned Suga’s communication skills by calling him out for reading from a script in a monotone fashion. But the prime minister has defended the way he handles his meetings with the media.


“I respond with sincerity to questions asked at news conferences … in my own words,” Suga said in a written response to members of the media that were not called on at a news conference last week.


This combination of worrisome factors has steadily rattled the party to the point where it is now uncertain whether Suga will be re-elected as party chief. Following the humiliating loss in the Yokohama election, some within the party — including younger LDP lawmakers with a weak support base in their district — are apprehensive about whether Suga is fit to lead the party into the upcoming general election.


Both former internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi and current policy council chief Hakubun Shimomura have openly expressed their desire to run in the leadership contest. Former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida is reportedly seeking to take part as well.


For now, prominent LDP figures such as Abe and finance minister Taro Aso have thrown their weight behind the prime minister. Whether it is Suga or someone else, success in the leadership race hinges on the support of those two heavyweights.


Meanwhile, Toshihiro Nikai, the LDP secretary-general and the first major faction leader to endorse Suga as Abe’s replacement, has maintained that support this time round. On Tuesday, he indicated his openness to allowing multiple candidates to run but made clear the importance of party unity.


“(Responding to the pandemic) is something that’s difficult for anyone, since this is the first time we’re going through such an experience,” Nikai said. “It’s easy to criticize or make comments about this … but I commend (Suga’s) handling (of the matter).”

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