Yoshihide Suga pulled through his first Diet session as prime minister, overall staying on course to pass necessary bills and ward off criticism over appointments to a science council and alleged improper use of funds in relation to a cherry blossom-viewing party.
The 41-day session, set to end Saturday, wraps up after lawmakers passed bills that would enable free coronavirus vaccinations while exempting pharmaceutical companies from damages in liability lawsuits over side effects caused by the shots. The Upper House on Friday approved a free trade deal with the United Kingdom, the first major agreement for the country as it leaves the European Union’s orbit next year.
As expected, the prime minister, who assumed his role almost three months ago, was subjected to a barrage of criticism from opposition lawmakers over his involvement in decisions regarding the membership of the Science Council of Japan, barring six scholars from being appointed in an unprecedented move.
He was further put on the defensive toward the session’s end as nationwide coronavirus cases resurged, hitting Japan’s highest level ever, and questions surrounding a cherry blossom party hosted by his predecessor, Shinzo Abe, re-emerged, empowering an opposition that is determined to continue its attacks on the prime minister through the upcoming ordinary Diet term beginning in January.
“The government has strived to sincerely answer questions in the Diet,” said Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato on Friday morning. Suga is scheduled to have a news conference Friday evening to reflect on the autumn meeting, the first time he will speak to the media for longer than five minutes in roughly a month and a half.
Seen as a barometer of his ability and fitness to be the nation’s leader, Suga’s Diet debut began with policy speeches in which he presented his blueprint for domestic and foreign affairs to the nation in late October.
The government narrowed down its submissions of new legislation to nine and one treaty, prioritizing the newly appointed prime minister’s capacity to weather Diet deliberations without becoming embroiled in controversies.
Alongside the Diet schedule, Suga sought to gain diplomatic wins and boost his name recognition on the global stage, having a teleconference with U.S. President-elect Joe Biden, attending the Group of 20 summit and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings online, and sitting down with high-ranking officials from South Korea and China, including the latter’s foreign minister.
On the economic front, Suga in mid-November ordered the compilation of a third supplementary budget for fiscal 2020 and the preparation of an economic stimulus package that he hopes will gain Cabinet approval by mid-December.
The ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan even agreed to postpone debating the national referendum law revision until the upcoming regular legislative session, with an eye on “drawing some kind of conclusion.”
Heading into the extraordinary session, though, Suga was already faced with a headache. In late September, the administration refused to appoint six academics who had been critical of Abe’s national security legislation to serve on the Science Council of Japan.
The council, which is independent of the government but is under the prime minister’s jurisdiction, recommends new members every three years, and the prime minister officially nominates them.
Day in and day out, the largest opposition CDP and the Japanese Communist Party squarely targeted Suga over the controversy, accusing him of interfering with academic freedom.
Although they ramped up their attacks, he did not capitulate and kept defending the decision, saying that it was legal and part of his broader effort to break down precedents. But he is yet to explain the crux of the issue: why the administration excluded those academics in the first place.
“This was a Diet session that would have been devoid of political showdowns, and it would have been calm if the science council controversy didn’t erupt,” said Izuru Makihara, a professor at the University of Tokyo whose research covers Japanese politics. “I feel that the administration wasted its energy unnecessarily. … My impression is that he kept dodging.”
The coronavirus pandemic also threw a curveball at the fledgling administration. As the temperature began to dip and the movement of people increased, the nation’s COVID-19 cases took an upward turn.
Suga, however, appears to be concentrating on the economy over public health, showing reluctance to completely dial back the Go To stimulus program that he had helped devise.
At Diet hearings, he repeatedly underscored how it is helping regional economies and stressed that the public should maintain personal hygiene practices such as washing hands, wearing a mask and avoiding crowded places with poor ventilation.
“The government is doing everything it can to protect jobs and keep businesses running during this pandemic,” he said at a Diet hearing last month.
Furthermore, Suga was thrust into an awkward position last month when media reports surfaced that Abe’s political group covered a shortfall in the cost of dinners for supporters on the eve of an annual cherry blossom-viewing party while he was the prime minister, a possible violation of the Political Funds Control Act and a contradiction of the former prime minister’s earlier claim that no such action had taken place.
Suga, who was chief Cabinet secretary under Abe, had shielded him from criticism from the media and opposition lawmakers over the issue. Asked about the consistency of his previous testimony, the current prime minister on Nov. 25 admitted he should take responsibility if they were untrue.
“I’ve faithfully answered questions and I’ll continue to do so,” he said Monday.
Unsatisfied with the administration’s response, the opposition demanded that the Diet session be extended to discuss coronavirus measures and bring in Abe for a hearing. The ruling bloc quickly, as expected, shot down the proposal Friday.
Still, the opposition is resolved to go after the prime minister in the regular session scheduled to begin Jan. 18, the break providing him a brief moment of respite but he will face similarly intensive flak looking ahead.
Nevertheless, it will be difficult for the opposition to gain public approval by solely attacking the administration, said Masato Kamikubo, a professor of Japanese politics at Ritsumeikan University.
The CDP only has an 8.4% approval rate, far below the LDP’s 44.7%, according to a Kyodo News poll from November. Aware of the potential risk of triggering a snap election, the opposition party will not submit a motion of no confidence against the Suga Cabinet.
Makihara, the University of Tokyo professor, said Suga will be able to highlight his administration’s appeal through debates over the budget, which will cover the cost of his signature policies such as facilitating digitalization. The prime minister, though, will have a harder time explaining his positions in deliberations over issues unrelated to the budget.
“This was a session that could have enhanced the Suga Cabinet’s strength,” he said. “On the contrary, it might have exposed the Cabinet’s flaws. As far as I can see, the opposition knew COVID-19 cases would rise, so it wouldn’t have been a problem and the opposition couldn’t do much if the prime minister’s side was well-prepared. Instead, the administration gave rounds of ammunition for the opposition to take advantage of.”
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