TOKYO — Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Sept. 3 announced that he will not run in the upcoming Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) presidential election scheduled for Sept. 29, effectively declaring he will step down as prime minister.
The announcement came during an ad-hoc executive meeting of the LDP on Sept. 3. Suga’s term as party president is set to expire at the end of the month. He had been planning to reshuffle LDP executives and shake up his Cabinet next week. The personnel reshuffle will be forgone.
The Suga Cabinet’s support ratings have been sagging recently due to its response to the coronavirus pandemic and other issues. Voices had been mounting within the ruling party that the party wouldn’t fare well in the coming House of Representatives election with Suga at its helm. Former LDP policy chief Fumio Kishida earlier announced his intention to run in the party leadership race, among other potential candidates.
Since assuming office, Suga’s initial strategy had centered on winning the lower house election by accelerating COVID-19 vaccinations and making the Tokyo Olympics a success, as well as on being reelected in the LDP presidential election.
However, the pandemic has shown no signs of abating, and public frustrations built up after the government repeatedly extended and expanded the state of emergency over the coronavirus, asking people to refrain from going out and other activities. Even after the Tokyo Olympics, the approval ratings for the Suga Cabinet failed to pick up.
The ruling party struggled in a string of elections this year, including a triple-loss in by-elections and a repeat election in April to fill in vacant seats in the Diet and the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election in July. In the Yokohama mayoral election in August, a candidate fully backed by Prime Minister Suga suffered a crushing defeat. These adversities led many in the ruling coalition to call for replacing Suga as party head.
In a bid to forge a breakthrough, Suga pursued a plan to reshuffle the LDP leadership and the Cabinet, and then dissolve the lower house in mid-September ahead of the LDP presidential election. However, after this plan met a fierce backlash from within the LDP, Suga ended up ruling out the possibility of an early lower house dissolution when speaking to reporters on Sept. 1. At the time, he said, “It’s not a situation where we can dissolve (the chamber).”
Suga served as chief Cabinet secretary from the 2012 launch of the second Shinzo Abe administration until 2020. In September last year, Suga pulled off a sweeping victory in the LDP presidential contest held after Abe abruptly stepped down, becoming the 99th prime minister of Japan.
While Suga advocated taking over the policies of the Abe administration, he treaded an unusual path, being neither a hereditary legislator nor a member of any intraparty faction. Suga’s signature policy measures included digitization of government services and addressing loneliness and isolation issues.