Three months into his leadership term, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is showing early signs that his fate may follow that of Taro Aso, one of his predecessors, who held the top post for only a year before giving up the reins of government to an opposition force in 2009, political observers have said.
The cabinets of both Aso and Suga enjoyed high levels of support soon after launch but have later seen public approval ratings plunge.
Aso stopped short of calling a House of Representatives election soon after he took office, due to the need to address the economic crisis that followed the 2008 collapse of U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers.
After being forced to wait until soon before the expiration of the terms of Lower House lawmakers to go to the polls, a stinging election defeat knocked him and his Liberal Democratic Party out of power.
Suga, who took office in September, also opted not to call an early election for the Lower House, as he focused his efforts on dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Now many political observers are asking whether he will face the same fate as Aso, who is currently deputy prime minister and finance minister in the Suga government.
“The situation is similar to Aso’s,” said a middle-ranking member of the ruling LDP of the current state of the Suga government. “Aso started with high support ratings but faced a rapid drop.”
According to a senior official in the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, the Suga government “has come to look like the Aso government. He had the biggest chance (to call a Lower House election) immediately after he took office.”
Campaigns to bring down Aso gathered momentum within the LDP during his tenure, although he hung on to the post and called the Lower House election.
“Once the government’s fiscal 2021 draft budget is enacted, moves to kick out Suga may be set in motion,” said a source close to the LDP’s Aso faction familiar with the situation in 2009.
In addition to downswings in public approval ratings, there have also been similarities in Suga and Aso’s words and actions.
Earlier this month, flouting guidance for the public to avoid meals in large groups in order to reduce COVID-19 infection risks, Suga dined with about 15 people including private-sector experts, and also had dinner with seven celebrities including an LDP executive at an exclusive steak restaurant in Tokyo’s upscale Ginza district.
The steak dinner amid the viral crisis sparked critical coverage by Japanese and foreign media.
Then, in an apparent attempt to show a more jovial side, Suga introduced himself on a recent internet program by saying, “I’m Gaasuu,” reversing the syllables of his last name.
The incongruous greeting amid public criticism of his government’s responses to the virus crisis drew derision from some including a senior government official, who said, “It could not have had worse timing.”
For his part, Aso came under attack from within the LDP for visiting bars night after night in the midst of the economic crisis. Officials accused him of lacking a common touch.
Aso’s frequently incorrect readings of kanji characters also contributed to disillusionment among party members and the public.
Suga “now seems unable to communicate well with the people, who have lost patience with every bit of his behavior,” said an LDP official who once served as party secretary-general.
Suga and Aso also both mobilized large-scale fiscal spending in efforts to ease economic difficulties.
To tackle what became known as the Lehman shock, the Aso government mapped out an economic stimulus package of some ¥56 trillion, involving about ¥15 trillion in government spending.
The Suga government has adopted a ¥15 trillion third supplementary budget for fiscal 2020 and the fiscal 2021 draft budget, calling for a record general-account expenditure of over ¥106 trillion. Policy responses to the virus crisis boosted the outlays.
With a Lower House election due in less than a year, his government is relying heavily on debt to manage public finances.
“If this goes on, Suga will be like Aso. He should have called a Lower House election in October,” an LDP executive said.
“Once public approval ratings fall, (a prime minister) is too afraid to dissolve (the Lower House),” said one source close to the Prime Minister’s Office.
With the possibility of Suga dissolving the Lower House early next year having almost vanished, not many options remain for when to call an election before the terms of the current Lower House members expire in October next year.
An accelerated resurgence of virus cases and a further downturn for the economy could raise difficult questions for the Suga government.
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