National / Politics | ANALYSIS

Burden of viral outbreak threatens Abe's government and his legacy

by Isabel Reynolds

Bloomberg

On the road to becoming Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, Shinzo Abe has overcome countless political perils. He may have met his match with COVID-19.

In a sign of mounting concern, Abe abandoned his relatively mild approach to the epidemic last week with a shock announcement urging schools to close nationwide from Monday.

The move sent millions of parents rushing to arrange child care and raised doubts about the government’s grasp on a situation threatening to tank the economy, scuttle Tokyo’s plan to host the Summer Olympics in four months and tarnish Abe’s legacy.

“This step signals both the government’s alarm at the outbreak’s trajectory and — perhaps more importantly — Abe’s awareness that mismanaging the outbreak could critically damage his premiership,” said Tobias Harris, a Japan analyst for Teneo Intelligence in Washington.

“However, it seems unlikely that this step will either contain the outbreak or restore the public’s confidence in Abe’s leadership.”

The reversal followed weeks of controversy over Abe’s efforts to contain a disease that has infected more than 200 people in Japan and hundreds of others during attempts to quarantine a cruise ship offshore.

Abe’s health minister acknowledged last week that Japan was conducting only a fraction of the number of tests as its peers, meaning the cases confirmed so far may be just the tip of the iceberg.

The episode has damaged Japan’s reputation for competent governance. Some have begun to wonder whether it might be safer to postpone the Olympics for the first time since World War II. Tokyo has already spent more than $26 billion to prepare for the event, which Abe has made a centerpiece of his campaign to attract foreign tourists.

The blows have fallen on a Liberal Democratic Party-led government already weakened by a series of corruption scandals and a sales tax hike in October that left the economy teetering on the brink of a recession. Support for Abe’s Cabinet sagged last week to its lowest average level since July 2018, according to data compiled by Bloomberg Economics. One poll published by the LDP-backing Sankei newspaper showed support falling 8 percentage points to 36 percent.

Abe defended his response to the outbreak at a news conference Saturday, arguing that Japan was experiencing a less severe situation than places such as neighboring South Korea. He took personal responsibility for the dramatic decision Thursday to urge schools to close with just three days’ warning. “A decision that affects people’s daily lives will of course result in various opinions and criticisms,” Abe told reporters. “As prime minister, it is a matter of course for me to listen to those voices. But at the same time I need to protect the lives of the people.”

The Topix marked its worst weekly decline in four years last week and continued to fall for a sixth straight day in early trading Monday. That bodes ill for an economy that contracted 6.3 percent in the last three months of 2019. Unemployment rose to 2.4 percent in January, compared with 2.2 percent in December.

Outbreaks are only becoming harder to control as they spread from their source in China around the world. Over the weekend, the U.S., Australia and Thailand reported their first deaths due to the disease. The virus has infected at least 86,000 people and killed almost 3,000 worldwide, including several in Japan and at least six former passengers and crew on the Diamond Princess cruise ship.

Like leaders elsewhere, Abe has faced criticism for the government’s reluctance to institute a total ban on Chinese arrivals, with Tokyo instead curbing only visitors from China’s hardest-hit provinces.

The Sankei poll found two-thirds of respondents wanted all visitors from mainland China banned temporarily. That has complicated Abe’s push to restore ties with China that were mired in one of their biggest crises ever when he took power in late 2012.

While Abe benefits from a divided opposition that recently failed to merge its two biggest parties, a simultaneous collapse of the economy and the Olympic project might be too much for the LDP to ignore. Further declines could prompt the ruling party to ditch Abe ahead of the next general elections, which must be held by October next year.

Kazuhiro Haraguchi, a lawmaker with the opposition Democratic Party for the People and former minister for internal affairs, criticized the government for not triggering an action plan that was set out for influenza control under the previous administration.

“At first they said it wasn’t a big deal,” Haraguchi said in an interview ahead of the announcement on school closures. “The next thing they will probably do is say it’s too late to tackle it.”

Although Abe has survived worse slumps before, the coronavirus outbreak is shaping up to be his toughest challenge yet. Waiting in the wings is Shigeru Ishiba, a former LDP defense minister whose efforts to distance himself from the government have helped make him the most popular candidate to succeed Abe.

“There are major cracks appearing in his bedrock support,” said Shigeharu Aoyama, an Upper House LDP lawmaker, who said Abe’s policies had shown consideration for China while placing burdens on the Japanese people. “Doubts are emerging over the nature of the administration, and whether it’s appropriate for the nation.”

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